Utah 'Sunshine Law' eclipsed by hurried legislation on Hill
Saying that a lot of what legislators and other government officials send electronically should not be scrutinized last Tuesday night, Rep. John Dougall from American Fork introduced HB 477 in an unprecedented late hour ushering in of a piece of legislation. He then sailed it through two special committee hearings and a vote on the House floor and Senate floor to put it on Governor Gary Herbert's desk for his signature by 8 p.m. on Friday night.
The bill passed strong opposition from the media, civil liberties organizations, voters groups, environmental groups and other citizens groups, all of which testified it would hurt the citizens' right to know during the two day proceedings.
The bill was sent into committee meetings, that by some long time Capitol Hill operators recollections had never been called before. In the past committees should have ended as of Tuesday, but the House Public Utilities and Technology committee heard the bill Wednesday afternoon. About a dozen people testified against it including Jeff Hunt, probably the foremost Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) expert in the state. No one testified for the bill except Dougall. The committee voted it onto the house for Thursday 10-0.
On the house floor Thursday the debate over the bill didn't last very long, with most house members speaking for the bill. It passed the house 64-12. All of the no votes came from Democrats, including Christine Watkins, Carbon Counties representative from District 69. The other 11 Democrats who voted nay were Patrice Arent, Rebecca Chavez-Houck, Brian King, Marie Poulson, Jackie Bikupski, Tim Cosgrove, David Litvak, Jennifer Seelig, Joel Briscoe, Janice Fisher and Carol Moss. No Republicans voted against it.
"I had originally signed on as a sponsor of that bill when it first came out," said Watkins in an email to the Sun Advocate on Thursday. "When I found out what it was about I took my name off it."
The other representative from the area, Patrick Painter of District 67 voted for the bill.
"Long ago when GRAMA was put in place we didn't have much email and no texting," he told the Sun Advocate on Monday morning in a phone interview. "I get personal stuff from constituents and others all the time and that kind of thing shouldn't be made public. We should keep the personal stuff out of what is released. It ought to be hands off."
By Friday afternoon the bill had been carried to the Senate where a Senate Rules Committee meeting was set. This, again, was an unprecedented move by the legislature according to capitol watchers. That afternoon session consisted largely of citizens groups testifying against the bill. No one came out for it except Dougall and its Senate sponsor Lyle Hilliard. It passed out of committee early that evening and was taken right to the Senate floor. Debate there was also short, and with a 21-7 vote it sailed through that chamber. Those voting against the bill included Democrats Pat Jones, Karen Mayne, Ben McAdams, Karen Morgan, Luz Robles, Ross Romero and amazingly the often-maligned Republican Chris Buttars who said he hated bills that get rushed through at the last minute.
"The thing is that many of us were concerned that these GRAMA requests were coming in and the state was having to supply emails that were private or in confidence," said State Senator David Hinkins who voted for passage of the bill. "We talked in caucus and the leadership promised that during the interim (between sessions this year) that they would be talking with the stakeholders and try to work out some of the bugs and come back with new legislation next year. I want a transparent government too, but it has to be done right."
Media sources from around the state and from all over the nation have been combining to comment on the bill and the way it was handled by the legislators.
Comments from various legislators may be a guide as to why the bill appeared so quickly and was rushed through. Some said that the bill needed to be put through this year because it wasn't an election year. Some stated that they wanted it done quickly because it would "fester" over the weekend so it needed to be passed by Friday.
As of Monday morning the bill was on Governor Gary Herbert's desk. Reportedly his office had received thousands of emails and phone messages urging him not to sign the bill into law.
Editors Note: (Editors note: Late Monday afternoon the State Senate and Houe passed resolutions to recall HB477 from the Governors desk. The thought is that the bill will now get more consideration, probably over the next few months, with a special session of the legislature to be called in June to consider reworked legislation).