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Utah lawmakers repeal controversial open records law

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers repealed a widely criticized law restricting access to many government records Friday, though not without a tussle between the House and Senate.

The vote, however, doesn't mean changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act or GRAMA aren't coming. Lawmakers intend to draft new legislation in the next few months — this time with public input that Utahns found sorely lacking when the Legislature hurriedly passed HB477 earlier this month.

"Obviously, this one isn't done," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville.

The bill largely exempted the Legislature and several forms of electronic communication from GRAMA, allowed for increased fees for records requests and erased language favoring openness.

Lawmakers say they have listened to the voice of the people and want to start with a clean slate.

"It is my opinion that we simply messed up. It was no one's fault but ours," said Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George.

Gov. Gary Herbert called the Legislature into special session to reconsider the bill after a huge public outcry galvanized the community, bringing together liberals and tea party activists in an effort repeal the law by referrendum.

In a statement afterward, the governor said he was pleased legislators responded to the people's will.

"It was the right thing to do as a first step to restore public confidence. As the Legislature’s working group re-examines Utah’s GRAMA statutes, I am confident all members will work diligently to craft recommendations which protect the public’s right to know, protect an individual’s legitimate right to privacy, and protect taxpayer dollars," he said.

A 25-member working group organized by GOP House and Senate leadership to consider changes to the open records law met for the first time Wednesday. No formal action was taken as participants — lawmakers, media representatives and other members of the public — voiced their views about GRAMA. The group intends to meet weekly.

Except for brief comments by House Majority Leader Brad Dee and House Minority Leader David Litvak, the House made quick work of HB1001, voting 60-3 to approve the bill that repeals HB477. Reps. Neal Hendrickson, D-West Valley; Mike Noel, R-Kanab, and Curt Webb, R-Logan, voted against the repeal.

Neither lawmakers nor the working group could move forward in a "forthright manner with HB477 hanging on top of everyone's head," Litvack said.

The Senate, after some lengthy debate, voted 19-5 to repeal the law, including amendments to assure public input and asking Herbert to call them into special session by June 24 to consider a new bill. Sens. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem; Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, Stuart Reid, R-Ogden; Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley, and Waddoups cast the dissenting votes.

The House, however, rejected the amendments. The Senate ultimately removed those provisions but approved "intent language" calling for the same thing, except without the June deadline.

Senate Democrats were united in the repeal and restoring "sunlight" to government, said Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake. "We believe it is better to measure twice and cut once," he said.

Waddoups said in an interview afterward that he thinks lawmakers would be inclined to pass a revised GRAMA bill this summer rather than wait until the 2012 Legislature because "January is closer to the election."

House members said there's no need to rush.

"Given the nature of the topic, that date may be too soon. A later date may be more appropriate." said Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, sponsor of HB477 said.

Rep. Holly Richardson, R-Pleasant Grove, a member of the GRAMA working group, said she didn't want to be tied down to a specific date. "We are all here to work," she said.

Though Herbert apparently told senators he liked the failed amendments, he did not say whether he would call another special session soon.

During floor debate, senators found themselves in sharp disagreement over whether to repeal the GRAMA bill at all. Some castigated the media for what they said was biased reporting on the issue.

"This was right when we voted for it the first time," said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley.

Waddoups accused the media of pressing lawmakers on how to vote and to declare their votes in advance.

"We have a word for that up here. That word is lobbyist. I believe they crossed the line and became lobbyists this year," the Taylorsville Republican said.

Urquhart said the statute has little do with the media. "It is the people's window into what we do."

Any attorney for the Utah Media Coalition praised lawmakers for repealing the measure.

"GRAMA is the people's law, and today the people have saved it with this historic vote," said Michael O'Brien, who represents Utah journalists, newspapers and broadcasters.

"We commend the governor and Legislature for fixing the mistake of HB477. As we now discuss ways to improve GRAMA, we must be prudent to preserve the intent and spirit of the law the people have worked so hard to save."

The original bill was rushed through the Legislature in its last week over objections aired in two public hearings. Shortly after the bill passed, a coalition of public interest groups of varying political views banded together to gather enough signatures to repeal the bill by referendum.

Herbert, facing a veto override, agreed to sign the bill if lawmakers would push the implementation date back to July 1 and appoint a working group to examine GRAMA and amend the bill in special session in June. But public protest over changes in the law continued, until Herbert called Friday's special session to repeal HB477 and start over.

First Amendment activist Claire Geddes, speaking at a rally held prior to the special session, said the people have risen up and taken the lead when government leaders failed to act.

"What's really happening here is we're seeing the power of the people," she said. "The public outcry over the passage of HB477 demonstrates how out of touch Utah government is with its people."

Janalee Tobias, a gun rights activist and backer of the petition drive to repeal the bill, said the public anger over the passage of HB477 showed that the pen is mightier than the sword.

"A mouth is more powerful than a Magnum," she said. "A signature is more powerful than a shotgun."

Leaders of Save GRAMA, the citizen referendum drive to overturn HB477, said Friday’s repeal means the Legislature recognized the will of the people.

"We declare this a victory, the first, we hope, of many victories," said Steve Maxfield, Save GRAMA coalition chairman.

Board member Linda Petersen said the Legislature grossly underestimated the electorate’s disillusionment over the issue.

"They thought this was a media issue. They thought the only people who would object to HB477 were a few liberals. The people of Utah have shown them they were wrong."