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SALT LAKE CITY — A Thursday rally at the Utah Capitol was the kickoff for a referendum drive aimed at gathering the 95,000 signatures needed to call a referendum election with the hope of repealing HB477.
The Legislature fast-tracked HB477 in the last days of the legislative session, pushing through wide-ranging changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) just two days after they were unveiled.
With liberal former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson sharing a podium with Utah tea party organizer David Kirkham, rally organizers took turns sharing their views on how the bill would harm Utahn's ability to access the workings of state government.
Legislators made issue of the government costs of accommodating requests for information under GRAMA's rules. "But that's the cost of doing the public's business," they said.
Participants who spoke at or are listed as opposing the bill included the Utah League of Women Voters, Utah Foundation for Open Government, the American Civil Liberties Union, Utahns for Ethical Government, the Utah Democratic Party, Heal Utah, the Utah League of Independent Voters, Utah Moms for Clean Air, Common Cause and the tea party.
The Society of Professional Journalists is also opposing the bill. The event drew broad media coverage, but no media organizations spoke at the rally.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake, voted against the bill and was the only Utah legislator attending Thursday's event. "Republican senators told me coming out of the bathroom this thing would blow over in a week. It's now been two weeks" since the legislative session ended. "These are dark days for the Legislature and democracy."
Common Cause President and CEO Bob Edgar was the notable non-Utahn at the rally, traveling to Salt Lake City from Washington, D.C. to voice his concern for the effects of HB477, which he believes are not isolated. "There is a major national effort to dissolve transparency laws," he said. "We were here in the '90s to help the League of Women Voters get (GRAMA) in place. We're back now to help save it."
Steve Maxfield, chair of the SaveGRAMA Citizens Coalition, compared the bill's language that would allow legislators to keep private the text messages they send and receive on state-owned cell phones to "sexting" among teenagers. "Now we have 'lexting.' Lexting is the prostitution of our state government to lobbyists," he said.
We were here in the '90s to help the League of Women Voters get (GRAMA) in place. We're back now to help save it.
–Bob Edgar, Common Cause president & CEO
Lobbyists are not allowed inside House and Senate chambers during the legislative session, but text exchanges between lobbyists and legislators gives them access and power that would be unseen by the public under HB477. "Your legislators are now for sale by this lexting," Maxfield said.
HB477 largely exempts the Legislature and several forms of electronic communication from GRAMA, increases fees for records requests and removes language favoring openness. Under pressure from Gov. Gary Herbert and after fielding angry calls and e-mails from constituents, legislators postponed the effective date before the bill was passed.
They promised to convene a working group including members of the press and public to study GRAMA after the session. That group will make recommendations to interim committees in time for a planned special legislative session in June.
Herbert has said he expects the law to ultimately look different than the changes that HB477 is set to usher in on July 1.
The referendum application was filed hours before Gov. Gary Herbert signed another bill, SB165, which bans electronic petition signatures. It remains unclear whether that would allow the use of e-signatures in the referendum drive. SB165 took effect immediately since it passed both houses with a two-thirds majority.
[HB477] was about transparency and openness in government, and yet it was rushed through in the dark. It's probably the only bill on the hill that is universally reviled by everybody.
–David Kirkham, tea party organizer
Under SB165, the group must gather signatures in at least 15 counties equal to 10 percent of voters in the last presidential election by April 19, 40 days after the end of the legislative session. Previously, the number was 10 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election. That would have lowered the bar significantly because far fewer voters participated in last year's special election for governor.
Despite, the delayed implementation date and promises of a public airing of concerns, the passage and signing of HB477 has unleashed a torrent of public protest from across the political spectrum and the country.
"It was about transparency and openness in government, and yet it was rushed through in the dark," said Kirkham, a Utah County businessman. "It's probably the only bill on the hill that is universally reviled by everybody."
Anderson called HB477 a "complete evisceration" of GRAMA, also known as Utah's sunshine law.
He recalled getting an open records request from City Weekly while he was mayor for all of the e-mails he'd sent and received for a month. "We happily complied, though it took a while to do it," Anderson said. "I think any public official ought to be subject to that kind of request."
House speaker responds to rally
In an interview after the rally, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she thinks the referendum and initiative process is great. "I'm a process person, and it's part of how the process works."
Lockhart would not directly answer two key questions about the bill — specifically, who was behind the bill, and whether she regrets how HB477 was handled — saying only that the bill "has given us the opportunity, the great opportunity to have this discussion, to engage the public." She was referring to a working committee that will review the bill, presumably before a special legislative session that could result in amendments before HB477 becomes law on July 1.
Lockhart said she, Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, and the governor's office were choosing the committee's membership, and that members could be announced as early as Thursday afternoon.
Most of the people sending Lockhart e-mail about the bill, she said, are expressing concerns, frustration or disappointment, and that the bill will certainly look different soon. "I would say there is zero chance that 477 as it exists today will be law in July."
Lawmakers turning against HB477
On Wednesday, the national Society of Professional Journalists gave Utah its first-ever "Black Hole Award" to highlight the new records law, which it said makes Utah the most secretive state in the nation.
Later that day, a second House member who voted for the bill distanced himself from the legislation.
Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, called for its repeal on Wednesday, saying while there is a need to balance the right to know and with right to privacy, HB477 is the wrong approach.
After giving the bill a closer look, Wimmer said, "I came down on the side of opposing the bill and opposing the concept as a whole. That's simply it. I had a change of heart."
Earlier in the week, Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, apologized for his "yes" vote and vowed to devote his legislative service "make sure nothing like HB477 ever happens again."