With the opening of the 2014 Utah legislative session, the Utah Media Coalition, as it has for the last three years, provides GRAMA Watch notes evaluating the transparency of proposed legislation.
GRAMA Watch began after a failed attempt in 2011 to gut Utah's premier open government law with House Bill 477. Since then the Media Coalition, with the help of attorneys who are experts on open-government law, has reviewed legislative bills for their transparency.
Bills are given a "bright light" if they make government more open, a "lights out" if they make government less open, or a "pale light" if they have a neutral effect.
The system has proven an effective way for the public to track government openness. In most cases the legislature has voted with coalition's recommendations, either rejecting "lights out" bills or approving "bright light" bills.
"At the time HB 477 was introduced into the legislature in 2011 I was the president of the Utah Press Assocation and we had quite a fight on our hands to keep that bill from taking away much the transparency in government that the media and the public had fought to gain over the years," said Richard Shaw, Publisher of the Sun Advocate and Emery County Progress on Wednesday. "It was introduced to the body later than any bill had ever been introduced in anyone's memory. It was obviously a political move to cut the legs out from under those who watch over what state government does."
The bill passed both houses and was sent to the governor. But the governor told the legislature they needed to reconsider what they had done largely because public pressure from phones calls, emails and other contacts were so numerous against the bill becoming law.
"To those of us in the media it was like a legislative Pearl Harbor, a sneak attack on the right of the public to know what is going on with their elected leaders and state agencies," said Shaw. "The bill was rescinded, but only because the public was so adamant about stopping it from becoming law."
Up until that time the Media Coalition (which included the UPA and the broadcast industry) had often worked through back channels to bring proper legislation to the floors of the capitol. However, that move sparked the Media Coalition to create GRAMA Watch which now looks at all bills and gives those that pertain to transparency the lights that signify whether they are proper or not.
"We all need to thank the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News for their vast support in terms of manpower and money in keeping this going," said Shaw. "Without them we could never have had the legal representation we had to defeat it or what we have today to keep watch over what is going on."
Over the next few weeks the Sun Advocate and Emery Progress will be placing the GRAMA Notes light spots in the papers so the public may learn about bills that are good for transparency and those that are not.