Oh thank heaven! No more 477

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Legislators repeal controversial anti-transparency bill

Governor Gary Herbert has been surprisingly helpful lately.

First, he pointed out the obvious: Closing down profitable liquor stores during a recession is fiscally idiotic. That’s something everyone was already thinking, rumpots and teetotalers alike.

Second, and more importantly, he called for the repeal of HB477, a bill the Utah State Legislature passed which would basically give license for our legislators to run as wild as a stampede of drunk coeds on Spring Break in Mexico. In an official statement issued on March 21, Gov. Herbert said, “A public’s right to have access to government records, processes and officials is the hallmark of a modern republic –and a principle I have consistently advocated. Not only have I responded to scores of GRAMA requests in my public career, I support this process as a private citizen.”

In his statement, Gov. Herbert also accounted for his initial passage of the bill.

“I considered a veto. Indeed, a veto would have had symbolic value. Yet the risk of HB477 becoming law immediately upon the Legislature’s veto-override was too great. Instead, I asked legislative leadership to recall and amend the bill to provide three things: 1) a delayed implementation date, 2) a process for meaningful public and stakeholder input, whereby a replacement bill could be crafted, and 3) reflects my commitment to call a special legislative session to repeal and replace HB477.”

After much debate and deliberation on the part of the Legislature over the course of nearly a month, HB477 was finally repealed on March 25. The amount of public outcry and the call for a repeal, if necessary, through a voter referendum may have provided enough pressure to convince the hardest sell: The Senate.

The repeal passed through the House without issue, but the Senate insisted on making amendments calling for interim hearings and an additional special session over the summer to revise Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Access law. After the House refused to pass the amendments, the Senate gave in, choosing to note their requests in the Senate journal instead. Gov. Herbert did state that he intends to follow through on their requests.

When these coming debates do occur, it will be important to keep in mind what was almost lost at the passing of HB477 so that the Legislature does not try to pull a fast one on the rights of its citizens again.

If the bill had not been repealed, the effects on government transparency could have been devastating. The bill called for changes to Utah’s GRAMA that would make electronic communication, including e-mails, text messages, voice mails, instant messaging conversations and video chats, exempt from open records law. This would have allowed for electronic secret sessions to debate and negotiate issues, as well as additional confidential contact with lobbyists.

If all records pertaining to public affairs are not subject to the same rules, a shift could occur where secret negotiations take place via electronic mediums. The difference between an e-mail and a letter sent in the mail is the speed and method of delivery. HB477 was an attempt to restrict access to certain mediums of communication, not to specific content that would reduce privacy of citizens and elected officials, as was feared by some. Simply put, it could have created a loophole allowing communication has been deemed in the public’s interest to occur unmonitored.

In addition to limiting the amount of information available, it would have made it more difficult to obtain what remained accessible. The existing version of the GRAMA law stated that those who file a records request are responsible for paying direct administrative costs. HB477 increased costs by using vague language that made the requester responsible for additional administrative cost that are already paid for through taxes, as well as adding unspecified overhead costs. Essentially, it deregulated what citizens are responsible for paying to the point that government agencies can discourage people from asking for information by making it unaffordable.

If costs themselves were not enough to drive away those looking for information, HB477 also removed the burden of proof from the government to prove why something should not be made public. Requesters would have had to specify why information was in the public interest, instead of those with the information explaining why it was not.

In a political climate where the cries for government transparency are practically deafening, how could one of the most conservative states in the union even dream of passing a bill that would limit access to electronic records – particularly when the conservative sects in America are the ones calling for said transparency?

The answer is going to be difficult for those who believe that an American flag pin and a platitude about “traditional values” is the window into a squeaky clean soul. Corruption is an adaptable beast that makes a disgusting hovel in the heart of any crook or Judas who will let him in. As much as the devotees of the right wing would like to believe that every shady activity is the work of a Democrat, HB477 is the twisted brainchild of sponsor John Dougall and Senate Floor Sponsor Lyle W. Hillyard – Republicans, both of them.

It should be noted that those who voted in favor of this bill did not have the basic accountability required in responding to the concerned emails of citizens like our very own Editor-in-Chief, Dave Newlin. Hillyard, Dougall and their cohorts had no interest in explaining the rationale behind HB477 whatsoever. This is likely because that would be an electronic communiqué to which the public would have access.

The public outcry against this bill and the true colors of our state representatives revealed is not a victory for Utah liberals, however. When government representatives so publicly out themselves as disreputable vultures, it’s a loss for the citizens. It means that public involvement in this government by and for the people has been so lacking that the folks on Capitol Hill believe that they can get away with anything and right in front of us, too.

The only place to point the merciless finger of blame is at our own chests. The coyote is sly, but if the farmer doesn’t even bother to close the gate, the blood of the hens is on his own damned hands. And while our lawmakers are hurriedly trying to amend this law, the real amendment to be made is on the House and Senate rosters. The real fix is to get involved, find out who ones representatives are and drop them like a bad habit if they attempt such ignominious actions ever again. They may be the lawmakers, but we, the people, are the bosses.

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