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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature recalled a controversial bill Monday that some say would gut the state's open records act and was rushed through the House and Senate last week.
Gov. Gary Herbert met with legislative leaders to say he would veto the bill if lawmakers didn't recall it and make changes. Herbert met with the House GOP caucus and Republican Senate leadership in the afternoon to discuss his concerns with the bill.
I think (the governor will) feel comfortable with it if we make a few changes. I think we'll convince him there is another way besides veto.
–Senate Pres. Michael Waddoups
"I think he'll feel comfortable with it if we make a few changes," said Senate President Michael Waddoups. "I think we'll convince him there is another way besides veto."
After the House recalled the bill, the Senate voted 23-6 to change the effective date of HB477 to July 1, 2011. The House concurred with the amendment 42-29. No other changes were considered.
In a statement, Herbert said: "I am pleased the Legislature recalled the bill and I’m encouraged they are committed to amending the bill in order to provide for a more thorough and deliberative process. Good public policy demands good public participation. I reiterate my commitment to the principles of open and transparent government."
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said that change will allow a working group of lawmakers, executive branch representatives and others to meet and reconsider the bill.
A special session is expected to be called by the governor before July 1 to implement the changes. Lockhart said among the areas the working group would consider is the fees raised in the bill.
"We're listening to the constituents, and they're saying, 'We'd like to talk about this a little more.' We're responding to that," Lockhart said, as well as the issues raised by the governor.
She declined, however, to say the bill was approved too hastily. "I'm not going to apologize for the House's process. We bring out legislation, it's posted and available to the public 24 hours in advance; and we brought it to the House floor and voted and sent it to the Senate," the speaker said.
Several lawmakers remain in opposition
An award hangs on Marty Stephens' office wall. Former Speaker of the House, Stephens was one of the architects behind the GRAMA law about 20 years ago. He won the award for working with legislators, citizens and the media worked together to create the law.
"It was a very difficult, probably the most difficult piece of legislation I carried in my years up at the capitol," he said. "At the end of the day, everybody, I think, felt like we found the right balance because we had support from both the governments' groups, both local governments and state government, but also the media group."
Nearly two decades later, Stephens says the law needs some updating. However, he doesn't think HB477 is the answer.
"The Legislature hurrying this though, I don't think that's appropriate," he said. "I also don't think it's appropriate they've done away with intent language. That was a carefully crafted part of the bill."
He believes legislators may have greased the bill because they don't think a compromise is reachable.
Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who voted against HB477 last week, suggested forming a working group made up of lawmakers, governor's staff, media and the public to study the issue.
Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said the bill needs some tweaking. “We need a little more time,” he said.
He also said changing the effective date would allow the public and media to have input in the coming months, giving lawmakers the opportunity to look at "where we may have gone too far."
Republican Rep. Carl Wimmer of Herriman said he also has concerns about the process and wants his name removed as a sponsor.
"Perception is reality, and people believe this was pushed through too quickly and they didn't have their voices heard," Wimmer said, noting he has received hundreds of calls and e-mails opposing the bill. "It would be negligent of me as a representative to not reconsider our actions."
Herbert may wait to sign bill
The bill was introduced and passed in just over two days. In the committee hearings, public testimony was overwhelmingly against the measure. But it still passed with more than two-thirds of both the House and Senate and was originally set to take effect upon Herbert's signature.
But the governor's spokeswoman said Monday he is in no hurry to make a decision on the bill and has raised concerns about how quickly it went through the Legislature.
I am pleased the Legislature recalled the bill and I'm encouraged they are committed to amending the bill in order to provide for a more thorough and deliberative process. Good public policy demands good public participation.
–Gov. Gary Herbert
"That's one of the issues," Ally Isom, said. "Although it might have been expedited on the legislative side, he's going to take the time necessary to review the bill."
House Minority Leader David Litvak, D-Salt Lake, said he met with Herbert who expressed concern about the process and the content of the bill.
Isom said the governor's office has also received hundreds of calls about HB477, sponsored by Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, since it was passed Friday afternoon.
Most of the calls have been calling on Herbert to veto the bill, she said. But Isom said all options available to the governor are on the table, including allowing the bill to take effect without his signature.
"He's weighing all of the options. There's sign the bill, there's not sign the bill and let it go into law, there's veto the bill," Isom said. "A veto-proof majority passed this bill, so that plays into the consideration.
Herbert has already heard from both supporters and opponents of the bill, she said.
"He's looking at all sides. He realizes it's emotional on all sides of this issue and there are strong feelings," Isom aid. "He has some concerns about not just the process, but to ensure that we get the end result that was initially sought by GRAMA."
Stephens thinks the actions of a handful of reporters and a few legislators have contributed to the mistrust, but he thinks there is still a way to compromise.
"If you could get the groups to commit -- both the Legislature and media -- to have an honest dialogue together, I believe you could come to a good solution to this," he said.
History of the bill
The 20-year-old Government Records Access and Management Act allows the public to request records from government sources.
HB477, which passed the House last Thursday, less than a day after it was heard in committee, and the Senate on Friday, would largely exempt the legislative branch from the law as well as several forms of communication, including voice mail and text messaging.
The bill would also raise fees for some requests and give state agencies more time to respond to requests. The bill is opposed by media outlets and many public advocacy groups, but lawmakers say it will protect the privacy of their constituents.
Since the bill surfaced, the governor's office and the Legislature have received some 22 new requests for information filed under GRAMA, Lockhart said, in addition to 10 requests made before the session started in late January.
The media is not the only group taking issue with the bill. "I hated the process," said Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka. Even though she likes much of the bill, the "outrageous fee" increases will prevent the public from accessing information.