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Campbell: Legislators' own words tell sad tale of HB477

Published March 25, 2011 10:33 pm

Blame game • Even in loss, they still blame the news media.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Friday was a day of high drama on Utah's Capitol Hill as the Legislature repealed HB477. It followed weeks of political theater surrounding a bill that would have drastically changed the landscape of Utah's records law, the Government Records Access and Management Act.

As journalism is often called, here is the first draft of history in the form of memorable quotes from Utah's great GRAMA debate of 2011:

Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland and sponsor of HB477, spoke during a last-minute House hearing:

"You may know this or you may not, but did you know that when a constituent of yours sends you an e-mail about a program and discloses to you that their child has a serious disease that that could be disclosed and put into the front page of the paper. I would suggest that constituent believes they are communicating with you in private."

Legal experts and legislative attorneys disagree about this statement. The law says that private information in legislative emails can be protected, but legislative attorneys suggest that is not the case. There will be continued debate about which position is accurate.

Dougall said this in a Senate Rules Committee hearing when responding to a question about the speed:

"I wouldn't say 'What is the rush?' but, from my perspective, 'What is the delay?' We have been working on this issue related to GRAMA for many, many years. We had a task force, we had a legislation a couple years ago. We have been working on this for many, many years.

"I believe this a process over many years. We have GRAMA in interim for year after year after year."

The only problem with Dougall's assessment is that it's hard to say the process to talk about an issue equates to development of specific policy. It's like saying the public has been talking about nuclear energy policy for 10 years and today the government agreed to allow a nuclear power plant will be built near Dougall's home in Highland. The devil is in the details.

On the other hand, Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, had this to say about why HB477 was rushed through in a matter of days:

"Nobody likes to do this in an election year. … So now is the time."

He also said: "We want to do it today. It will complicate matters if it has a weekend to fester."

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said this on the Senate floor after the Senate Rules Committee hearing:

"I felt a great deal of sorrow for the people who testified against the bill who were lay people. They didn't know what the bill said. Everything they complained about taking away from the law in Utah is still in the law. This does not change those provisions. I felt sorry because all they probably knew is what they read in the paper and heard on the news. We have not made the large draconian changes you have heard in the news."

Former Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who voted against HB477, said on the Senate floor he was concerned with the speed at which it moved. "I don't like this type of thing at the end of a session. I've seen it before; I hate it. If this is such a good thing, let it be aired and have some time."

Obviously, legislative leaders underestimated the way the public would respond to this news of the quick repeal. Of course, many lawmakers, even on Friday, wanted to blame the media as the "over the top" messenger in the debate.

In the end, lawmakers should give up their focus on media bashing and focus on who really matters in this debate – their constituents and transparent government.

Joel Campbell is a former reporter and current associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University. His reporting does not necessarily reflect the views of BYU. He writes on First Amendment and open-government issues for The Tribune.