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Utah lawmakers cut off public access to information

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Judith Lewis Mernit | Mar 14, 2011 08:00 AM

Okay, I admit it. At times, I’m a Tea-Party sympathizer. I’ve been glad to hear voices like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s calling to eliminate wasteful price-gouging military contracts. And having spent too much of my lifetime struggling to extract information from recalcitrant government officials, I can see where people get the idea that inside federal offices boils some master-minded conspiracy. An open and transparent government for all, I say.

Gary HerbertIt galls me then, when avowed Tea Party Republicans pass legislation in direct conflict with those cries against tyranny. And there’s no better example of that than the latest lawmaking in the Utah Legislature, H.R. 477, a re-tooling of the state’s 20-year-old Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) that the Salt Lake Tribune says will “eviscerate the state’s prime open government law.”

As signed into law on Thursday by a governor, Republican Gary Herbert, who once feigned opposition, the new law (many thought he would veto) exempts members of the state legislature from GRAMA, restricting public access to lawmakers’ texts, emails, voicemail messages, Skype sessions and computer documents, no matter how pertinent they may be to their job conduct and decision making. It raises fees for public records requests and extends the time the government has to respond to information requests. It also deletes language in GRAMA that instructs lawmakers to err on the side of disclosure.

In short, it makes a mockery of open government claims, which are particularly important to protecting the environment. Back-room deals are where lands get sold off to the highest bidder, and in an energy-producing and mining state, that usually isn’t the local hiker’s club.

The bill’s main sponsor in the Utah Senate, Republican Lane Hillyard, argues the bill is necessary to save Utah precious time and funds now spent answering all those nattering requests from nattering reporters. “Our staff is tired of the threats from the media,” he wrote in a letter to a constituent, blogger Tyler Riggs. (Riggs, to his credit, reminded him that the media is only the public’s watchdog.)

But it will cost the state its reputation for open democracy. GRAMA was once heralded as one of the best open-government laws in the nation. Now, say some observers, such as Jeff Hunt, a lawyer for the Utah Media Coalition, it’s become one of the worst. Polls show that most Utahns agree like they’ve never agreed before: H.B. 477 has met with nearly unanimous rancor from Democrat, Republican and Tea Partier alike; one poll by the Deseret News shows 90 percent of the state objecting.

And the truly ugly reality is that Utah’s legislators know this, which is one of the reasons the law zipped through the legislature in breathtaking speed – just seven days from first reading to becoming law. “I think the conclusion that was reached was it does not matter how many hearings or how much explanation we give on this,” said Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City to the Vernal Express. “The public is not going to understand . . . “

On Thursday, a few hundred representatives of that public showed up at the state capitol to tell legislators what they do understand. Some of them carried signs reminding legislators, “You Work for Us!” Others sent up a well-rendered chorus of “This Land Is Your Land,” proving once in for all that Utah activists are altogether better singers than the Cheese state kind. More wholesome, too: When they tired of Woody Guthrie, they sat down on the steps and clapped along to that bible-camp favorite, “This Little Light of Mine.”

And so the public seems to understand just fine. Elected legislators who refuse to conduct state business in the open have secrets to keep. One of them may well have to do with who is actually influencing their decisions. To make that plain, one Utah eBayer offered his own State Senator. Jerry Stevenson. up for auction.

“Buyer beware,” he warned, protecting his spotless feedback score. “This toy is broken . . .it just doesn’t work.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor at HCN. She writes from California.

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