There were plenty of big stories in Utah politics this year – redistricting, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, an election, Tim DeChristopher, Occupy SLC, who will challenge Orrin Hatch – not to mention two presidential candidates (three, if you count Rocky Anderson) with strong Utah ties. However, what really lit up Utah voters was the story that the legislature kept secret until the last minute – the attempt to tighten Utah’s Open Records Law and the backlash that followed.
During the final days of the 2011 legislative session, a bill that had been left blank in the legislative record began to emerge. HB477 would have made most electronic communications sent and received by legislators secret. The House meetings to discuss the bill were held outside of public view and the bill passed the House, Senate and had a signature from Governor Gary Herbert in the final days of the final week.
Once it came out of nowhere, voters and the media were immediately on the offence. The legislative leadership began to defend itself, saying the media reports were unfair and the changes were necessary to protect the private lives of lawmakers. The louder voters complained, the faster some legislators began to backpedal. Some said they felt they were coerced into voting for the legislation. Others said they voted for the bill without even reading it. Ultimately, a Special Session was called and HB477 was repealed. Voters and the media won the battle, but the war is not over.
In the months following the 2011 session, a committee was formed to review GRAMA – Utah’s Open Record law. Their recommendations will be given to the members of the 2012 Legislature. Because a Republican majority can make it possible to close just about any meeting, it is possible they may try to pass similar legislation, and once again, the media and Utah voters will have to stay vigilant.
The real questions are: Did anyone learn anything from HB477? Did lawmakers learn they couldn’t just do whatever they want? Did voters learn their voice does count, but only counts if they use it? Let’s hope we all learned something. But just in case, we must all stand up and demand what is right.
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