Utah's lawmakers prepare to conclude marathon '06 session
As Utah legislators prepare for a marathon day on March 1, various interest groups look for certain bills to be defeated or enacted before the end of the general session.
Any legislative action must be completed before the end of March 1.
Members of media organizations around the state are looking at a number of bills that are still pending final review.
The news media hope for wins for many bills that would bolster access to open meetings while pushing for defeat of legislative proposals that would limit access to information currently regarded as public.
Utah's Government Records Access Management Act has come under particular scrutiny this year, with seven bills proposed that would amend the act:
House Bill 258 has already been signed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
The law will specify that certain telephone numbers are not considered as government records and, therefore, do not need to be classified as public, private or protected.
The legislation is a change from the initial bill that would have limited how members of the public can contact a government agency regarding records requests.
The original bill sought to allow government agencies to publish a single business address, email address or telephone number at which the public may contact an employee or officer.
Opponents of the bill noted that agencies must only provide only a single method of contact, possibly making it more difficult for members of the public to submit records requests.
The provision in question was struck from the bill prior to enactment.
Senate Bill 281 has been held up by the House Judiciary Committee. The bill would classify as private any portion of a record containing a minor's name, age, home address, home telephone number, mobile phone number or Social Security number, unless the record is a court record. This bill has been strongly opposed by members of the media, who have cited that it will damage the ability of high schools to produce student publications or release information to local media. SB281 is still in the committee and has not been forwarded to the senate.
SB190, sponsored by Sen. Mike Dmitrich, seeks to define where information must be accessed. If protected information was shared between government agencies, the agency that receives the record must direct all inquiries regarding access to the record to the agency that prepares, owns or retains a record. For example a record shared by a law enforcement agency with a prosecuting attorney must be obtained from the law enforcement agency, not the attorney's office. SB190 has passed the senate and is scheduled for a second reading in the house.
SB15 would change the form in which information could be accessed. If information is available in another format than that requested by the person or agency requesting it, the government entity may direct the requester to that publication. A second provision has faced opposition by members of the media. This provision would limit the ability to take appeals directly to court actions. Instead, appeals would belayed months in an appeal before the state records committee. SB15 has been help up in the house and has been sent to the house rules committee due to the fiscal impact it would have on state and local government agencies.
HB117 would further delay the appeals process, by lengthening the time in which appeals must be heard by the state records committee. The bill would add as much as three weeks to the time in which the appeals must occur. The bill is making its way out of the senate and is likely to cross Huntsman's desk.
HB28 would allow the release of information that is otherwise protected if it is not used for commercial purposes and releasing the information better serves to protect privacy and consumer rights. It would also alter how agencies can respond to requests for information compiled in spreadsheets and other electronic formats. For example, information in a spreadsheet could be released in IBM's Lotus 123 format even if the requester needs the information in a Microsoft Excel file, essentially allowing government to add hurdles to the access for the information. Already passed by the house, HB28 is making its way out of the senate where the standing committee has given it a favorable recommendation.
SB110 would allow judges to restrict release of their voter information. open government advocates oppose this move and are pushing to keep government as transparent as possible, without affording unnecessary rights or protections to elected officials.
Three bills would provide greater access to the public legislative process:
SB9 has already been enrolled and is scheduled to go to the governor's office. The bill is mostly technical in nature, and defines new terms such as "electronic meeting." and recodifies the law to keep with other state laws that have been adjusted in recent years.
HB16 requires government agencies to be more specific in agendas released prior to public meetings. It also specifically prohibits agencies from making decisions regarding issues not on the agenda. While this last change is already in place by many agencies, the law puts the rule in place for all agencies of government. HB16 has passed both legislative bodies.
HB14 seeks to require all public bodies to provide training on the Open and Public Meetings Act and requires the state attorney general to release information regarding changes to the act on an annual basis. This bill has also passed both legislative bodies and is awaiting the governor's signature.