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Staff Editorial: Yes, Virginia, the legislature tried to kill GRAMA

Richard Shaw testifies before a committee hearing on sweeping amendments to the state's law on public access.

Sun Advocate publisher

Having spent much of last week fighting at the state capitol with some pretty formidable foes about the Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) I couldn't help be upset Saturday morning as I stood in line at an undisclosed location in Carbon County. People around me, who knew who I was, began asking me about what had happened on the hill. As I finally got to the end of my story I told the people I was talking with that "The legislature killed GRAMA."

A few seconds later I heard a little girl in the line behind me say to her mom, "Is grandma dead?" and she started to cry. Her mother told her that no, her grandma was not dead.

Sometimes you just gotta watch what you say around some people. No one should know that better than me after this past week. Spending time at the state capitol I heard some legislators say things I never thought would come out of their mouths. Some that I thought were very smart, said some pretty dumb things (and took some dumb actions to go along with them). A couple of others that I have usually disagreed with about everything, said things seemed to be the voice of reason.

There is so much to say about all that went on that I could take up every page of this paper. In short here is the rundown of the GRAMA game that went on this week.

*Tuesday night Representative John Dougall introduced a bill (HB 477) that would strip out all electronic media from the right to know act as we know it. It also upped the ante (in terms of bucks) for those that request anything that is still available. Worst of all the last two lines of the introduced legislation basically stripped the intent of the law from the books. This bill was introduced after the traditional last day of committee meetings on the hill. In normal circumstances it could not have gone forward. But these were obviously not normal times. That evening it was announced by the house leadership that despite the tradition of not holding any more committee meetings at that point in the legislature they did have four bills to look at that had previously not had a chance to be voted to the floor for a vote. They said that meeting would be held on Thursday evening. Lucky us. One long time lobbiest at the legislature told me the next day, when I was there for other legislation and to testify at the hearing on GRAMA, in all his years he had never seen them call a special committee meeting that late in the session. By the way, it seemed to most of us that the other three bills presented in the committee meeting were just fluff, camouflage to hide the real reason for the extra meeting. I drove home that night wondering what would happen.

*Thursday I arrived on the hill at about 11 a.m. to meet some legislators on another bill that the Utah Press Association was interested in. I was recruited that afternoon, since I have been serving as the president of the Utah Press Association this year, to meet with Dougall and his team to see what we could work out in terms of pulling the bill so we could have discussions over the next year about the problems he and his supporters had experienced concerning GRAMA provisions. We were led to a conference room at the west end of the capitol building and basically told where to go. He, nor his supporters, had any interest in negotiating with us because in their view they had been talking with GRAMA supporters for years and had gotten nowhere. All of us were stunned. To be honest the arrogance that I felt coming from he and his group in the room was unbelievable. Obviously there was no compromise to be had. And we knew then that we had certainly lost the battle in the house. An hour later I and a dozen other people all testified against the bill. Our main witness was Jeff Hunt, a specialist in GRAMA and right-to-know issues around the nation. He was ignored. Few of us even got a rise out of the committee at all. They obviously had already decided how to vote and it went out of committee 10-0. That evening we spent the night trying to regroup, hoping some sanity would come to the house floor the next morning.

*It didn't. I went to the capitol at 7 a.m. to attend the Rural Caucus that members of the Senate and House attend each Friday. As I talked with legislators around the room before the meeting, I had a discussion with Rep. Mike Noel from Kanab, who had chaired the meeting I testified at the night before. He and I have developed a pretty good relationship in the last couple of years and he was pretty up front with me, as he often is. It is one of the things I like about him, even though I often disagree with him on some issues.

"I guess you are mad at us aren't you?" he asked.

"I just think the way this bill has been presented is wrong," I said.

"Well we are just don't want anyone taking even our conversations with our wives and using them in the media," he said.

"I don't think any of us want that either," I said. "I agree that there may have been some abuses, but we should have had time to talk about them and to consider what to do before the bill was introduced."

Just then the meeting commenced and our conversation was finished.

A bit later I sat in the gallery of the house and watched the HB 477 pass 64-12. All of those no votes came from Democrats, including Christine Watkins, our representative from District 69. Christine and the other nine Democrats who voted nay will always be my heros (Patrice Arent, Rebecca Chavez-Houck, Brian King, Marie Poulson, Jackie Bikupski, Tim Cosgrove, David Litvak, Jennifer Seelig, Joel Briscoe, Janice Fisher and Carol Moss).

That afternoon the bill was rushed off to a Senate committee (another very unusual development) and despite more testimony against the bill, this time from citizens groups instead of the media, the bill passed out of the committee 5-2.

In neither of the committee meetings during those two days did one person outside of the legislative sphere of influence testify for the bill. Obviously the joke was on us, and I am sure some of the legislators got a good laugh out of watching all of us squirm.

Then it went to the Senate floor where it was affirmed in a 21-7 vote. The seven Senators who voted against it's passage included Democrats Pat Jones, Karen Mayne, Ben McAdams, Karen Morgan, Luz Robles, Ross Romero and amazingly the often maligned Republican Chris Buttars.

It was over in less than 48 hours. It's passage was greased with so much slick political lubricant I was surprised anyone could stand up on the floor of either the House or Senate chambers without falling down. Now it is in the Governors hands, and I personally believe he will go ahead and sign it.

The reason? Even though the first entry in the house ledger concerning this bill was Feb. 2 of this year, it had been in the works for a very long time, probably sometime last summer. The proponents wrapped up nearly every argument they had against GRAMA, many from legislative battles they lost in the past, in this one bill. It was like an attack on transparency version of Pearl Harbor or 9-11. It took stealth, disinformation and downright dishonesty to hide this bill from any opposition until it was revealed in a sneak attack at the last minute. No one can prove it, but it would be very strange indeed if Gary Herbert had not caught some wind of its existence a long time ago. How could he have not; it smelled so bad.

But the big loser here is not the media. It is the public. Citizens not only lost some of their rights, but they also lost some of its trust in our states ruling bodies. Legislator's statements about wanting to get it passed in a non-election year and not letting it go over the weekend because it would only make things fester, shows what their true intent was. With the exception of those who voted against it, its pretty obvious that the others could care less about how you, the citizens of this state, feel about it, despite many flash polls that showed a vast majority of Utahn's were against the bill.

We all ought to be crying like that little girl I upset, because we really did appear to lose GRAMA.
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 bill legislation).

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