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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would restrict public access to many government records sailed through the House Thursday, less than 24 hours after it was first discussed in committee.
It's the bedrock of our form of government. Our tax money is paying for the government. We have a right to know what government is doing.
The House voted 61-12 to pass HB477, which proposes sweeping changes to the Government Records Access Management Act. Lawmakers said it would clamp down on records requests that they claim are bogging down state government.
GRAMA allows the public to request copies of government records. Rep. John Dougall's bill would largely remove the state's legislative branch from the law and exempt several forms of communication, including voice mail, instant messaging, text messages and video chats.
"So much business is conducted electronically now," said citizen advocate Steve Erickson. "If we exempt electronic communications among the legislators we will be having a huge gap in the public's right to know."
The media often looks at these types of records to act as a government watchdog, but so do a lot of citizens, like blogger and Ogden resident Dan Schroeder.
In general, do you favor public access to government records?
"I think we need to be more informed, not less," he said.
There are many things government does that makes Schroeder shake his head. Voting to change Utah's open records laws, he says, tops them all.
"It would make it immensely harder for an ordinary citizen, like me, to get most type of government records," he said.
Schroeder has used GRAMA to show the inner workings of government in Ogden and Weber County. He says one such public record he found showed how a consultant on a large project was chosen without it going to competitive bidding.
"If it weren't for the way GRAMA works now, we wouldn't have found out about that at all," said Schroeder.
Do you favor or oppose restricting public access to the text messages of public officials?
Dougall said he proposed the changes to protect constituents' privacy, allowing them to communicate candidly with their representatives.
"Nobody has advocated more for open government than I have," Dougall told the Deseret News. "I'm very concerned when taxpayers are asked to fund fishing expeditions."
So much business is conducted electronically now. If we exempt electronic communications among the legislators we will be having a huge gap in the public's right to know.
Later on the House floor, he said his constituents "do not want government to be ground to a halt. They want it to function."
GOP lawmakers support the idea.
"The public writes us things in e-mails and correspondence. It's very personal and private, and I think the public would be surprised to know that that's public information, and we're trying to protect them," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart.
The bill would also raise fees for especially large and complex requests and give state agencies more time to respond.
"It's like taking a meat cleaver to a problem that really requires a scalpel," said media attorney Jeff Hunt.
The Legislature's general counsel John Fellows said he had received eight GRAMA requests during this year's session, many of them extremely complex, creating an "unprecedented" amount of work for his office. Legislative leaders said staff have spent more than 400 hours responding to GRAMA requests in the past 12 months.
. In your opinion, how much do you think the restriction of public access to government records would harm the public's ability to understand and monitor government business?
|A great deal of harm||47%|
|Only a little harm||8%|
In an interview Thursday, Betsy Ross, chairwoman of the State Records Committee, said she was concerned that the bill would repeal the statement of intent attached to GRAMA, which states that the Legislature recognizes the public's right to access information about public business. That statement promotes "easy and reasonable access" to public records and favors openness over competing interests.
Ross said the records committee uses the statement to fill in gaps when ruling on a request that isn't covered explicitly by state law.
The public writes us things in e-mails and correspondence. It's very personal and private, and I think the public would be surprised to know that that's public information, and we're trying to protect them.
–House Speaker Becky Lockhart
In addition, she said the bill would upend the way GRAMA has viewed records since its adoption 20 years ago by exempting certain forms of communication.
"We always look at the record with regards to content, not format," Ross said.
As for the bill's other provisions, she said the current law already protects citizens from having private matters made public, and establishes fees for overly broad requests.
Ross said she was not speaking on behalf of the records committee, since it had not had a chance to discuss the changes. Other interested parties, too, should have had more time to vet the bill, she said.
"I think three days is not sufficient for that," she said.
The Senate Rules Committee is scheduled to discuss the bill Friday.
“I’m sure there will be some people very unhappy with what we’re trying to do here, but we can’t shut the state down and that's almost the essence of what we’re hearing from our staff,” said the bill's Senate sponsor Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.
We're trying to see the GRAMA law modernized.
–House Majority Whip Greg Hughes
At a House committee hearing Wednesday, several media outlets and open-government advocates spoke against the changes and the timing of the bill.
"It's the bedrock of our form of government," Schroeder said. "Our tax money is paying for the government. We have a right to know what government is doing."
Legislative leaders said Thursday they wanted to act because changes to GRAMA had been discussed for years but never enacted. They denied that the bill had been rushed, saying the process used to consider it was no different than for any other legislation.
"There's nothing odd about this process," said Lockhart.
House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said it was natural to make changes to GRAMA in response to technological changes over the last 20 years. He noted that when the law was adopted, private conversations only took place over the phone or in person, while they now commonly happen through texting or instant messaging.
"We're trying to see the GRAMA law modernized," Hughes said.
All 12 no votes came from Democrats, although four voted for the bill.
House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, opposed it but acknowledged there were "very legitimate concerns" about excessive requests. He said many legislators felt media outlets had not negotiated in good faith on prior proposals to amend GRAMA.
Rep. Neal Hendrickson, D-West Valley, supported the changes and criticized the press for trying to "dig up some dirt" on legislators. He said reporters make blanket requests for information because they are "lazy."
The governor's office did not respond Thursday to request for comment on the bill. A spokesman for Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he had no comment.