Last-minute bill jeopardizes public right to information
A bill introduced by an American Fork representative to the Utah State legislature in the waning hours of meetings could affect everyone's ability to get information about various government agencies, particularly information about some of what the legislature itself does.
House Bill 477, sponsored by Republican John Dougall was unveiled on Tuesday night, the last night on which new bills could be introduced into the legislature. The bill makes many significant changes to the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA).
It was revealed on Tuesday night that the committee meeting on the bill would take place Wednesday afternoon at 4:10 p.m. Opponents of changes to GRAMA laws immediately started to speak out about how such an important bill could go to the floor in a short space of 24 hours to amend a set of laws that took two years to write before they went into effect a few years ago.
Media and citizens right-to-know groups were organizing on Tuesday evening to attend the session to testify against the bill and particularly its timing. Some stated that this kind of bill, brought in at such a late hour, belies the transparency that legislators say they are committed to.
Attorneys and legislative analysts involved in right-to-know issues and were still cataloging all of the proposed changes at press time, but they had released some of what they saw as big changes in the law on Wednesday morning.
First, the legislature would exempt itself from all provisions of GRAMA except for those pertaining to legislative intent and security provisions. Under this, legislative management would create its own rules of access.
Second, the changes would modify the standard for the for the State Records Committee to disclose information from a balancing test between the public interest and other interests to a much higher "preponderance of evidence" standard.
Third, the bill would remove access to police follow-up reports, even if they contained information that is classified as part of an "initial contact report."
Fourth, it would remove text messages, a voice mail message or video chat as covered documents under the law. This means they would be unobtainable by the public and the press.
Fifth, it would include the cost of overhead, salaries and experts' time in calculating the cost to copy records. In the past most agencies used the least expensive employee to look up and produce documents when GRAMA requests came in. This has been done to keep costs low for the public so it could be affordable to anyone, because agencies can charge the requesting party for research and production time. The change could increase the cost of document acquisition to anyone requesting them.
Sixth, fee waivers for copies would be based on whether it is in the best interest of taxpayers' resources to do so.
Seventh, the current law states that citizens can inspect (but not obtain) a record free of charge. The proposed changes says that fees could be applied to records which are readily available.
Opponents of such legislation say that there are also many other provisions that could be hidden in the details of the bill that could be detrimental to the public's right to know. They also complained that a bill such as this should be introduced early in the session so it can be properly analyzed and debated, rather than being submitted for a committee vote to move it to the floor of the house at such a late hour. The legislative session closes next week and Wednesday is the last day that bills can be reviewed by committees for consideration.
HB 477 got a unanimously favorable recommendation from the Public Utilities and Technology Committee Wednesday afternoon.
The bill in its entirety can be seen at http://le.utah.gov/~2011/bills/hbillint/hb0477.htm.