Opinion: HB 477 could have had many negative consequences

The recent repeal of HB 477, the controversial 2011 Utah Legislative bill that rewrote the Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA), is perhaps more of a relief than Utah knows. Penny Byrne, media law and broadcasting professor at Utah State University, said, “I think there are a lot of unintended consequences from HB 477, and the legislators just don’t care. The fact they will be restricting research is not their concern, and that bothers me very much. “It should bother citizens a great deal. I think a short-term intention of this was the ‘get Matheson act,’”Byrne said. Was HB 477 created to help redraw congressional districts to get rid of Democrats like Jim Matheson of District 2? Some suspect government is always looking for ways to be more secretive. HB 477 certainly would have allowed for that. But is the idea of a conspiracy behind HB 477 too far-fetched? Does it give Legislators too much credit for conceiving such a plan? Connect the dots with a red pen, and it seems more than plausible, but perhaps intentional. Washington Post political analyst Aaron Blake said in a Feb. 24 article, “Republicans think Matheson will face his toughest opponent ever: redistricting. The GOP controls the redistricting process in the Beehive State, and in such a heavily conservative state, the dark-red district that Matheson holds sticks out like a sore thumb.” This year, the Utah Legislature will be doing congressional redistricting, and the deliberation could have been less of a public conversation because of attention focused on HB 477, pushing the Democratic minority party further to the background. Congressional redistricting happens every 10 years based on population numbers from the Census. Redistricting is the process of redrawing district boundaries when a state has more representatives than districts. Because of exurban growth in Utah, many speculate that districts will be redrawn to give rural areas more representations. Rural areas are traditionally held by Republicans in Utah, the dominant party. Thus urban areas could lose representation where Democrats have a better hold. Republicans have a 58-17 majority in the House and a 22-7 majority in the Senate. “This debate should be going on in the public eye, but (discussion of HB 477) would enable a lot of this to be hidden. In the short term, I think that is what this bill is designed to do,” Byrne said. “In the long run, it will allow a great deal more of the dominant party to do a lot of things behind closed doors.” HB 477 would have made getting access to government records much more difficult for journalists, scholars and citizens. One of the main reasons is that HB 477 would have made voice mails, instant messages, video chats and text messages records not subject to GRAMA requests, or in other words, off limits, Byrne said. Also, this bill would have allowed agencies to establish costs. “The costs of requests are supposed to be based on the actual costs of search, duplication, etc, but there is an addition in this bill that says actual costs plus overhead and administration can be charged,” Byrne said. “If I am a journalist from a small town weekly or an assistant professor hoping to make tenure, there are no reduced fees now for these special classes of researchers, they won’t have that.” Had HB 477 not been repealed, records would have only been disclosed if the person seeking the record had “established that, by a preponderance of the evidence, the public interest favoring access outweighs the interest favoring restriction of access.” This means, according to Sherilyn Bennion, co-legislative director for the Utah League of Women Voters, that even if the requester only had a suspicion or a curiosity, that wouldn’t be good enough. They may even have needed an attorney. Bennion said, “It is true that access to government information may cause embarrassment to lawmakers, but lawmakers should remember that citizens are their employers.” Bennion said she believes the makers of HB 477 were truly ignorant of the law. “The examples the legislators give for reasons supporting HB 477 don’t even apply or are not followed through. Things such as text messages to your wife are already protected records,” Bennion said. Before the repeal of the bill, the Utah Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Utah League of Women Voters were working to get a referendum on the November ballot. Bennion said they would’ve had to get 90,000 paper signatures in 30 days, a difficult task in a largely rural state. All dots connected, citizens of Utah would have been the ones to ultimately suffer under HB 477. “This is not a media issue,” Bennion said. “While the media are the public’s representatives in many ways, most GRAMA requests come from citizens. Citizens need access to government information to run their own government.” Find HB 477 at http://le.utah.gov/˜2011/htmdoc/hbillhtm/HB0477.htm.

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