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Utah's Right to Know
Donald Meyers
Donald W. Meyers writes about open-government issues for The Salt Lake Tribune. He is also the site manager of utahsright.com, the Tribune's online database of public records. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' National Freedom of Information Committee and sits on the board of directors of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

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HB477 didn’t seem to hurt Utah legislators at ballot box

Remember the outrage Utahns expressed at the Legislature in 2011?

When lawmakers railroaded House Bill 477 through both chambers, purportedly to "fix" the state Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), Utahns got into a lather when they realized that the bill would gut GRAMA and make the state less transparent than some third-world dictatorships.

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Had the election been right then, there probably would have been a lot of brand-new faces on Utah’s Capitol Hill. One would have thought that a vote for HB477 would have been an albatross around any incumbent’s neck.

So, what happened Tuesday night?

Of the 61 House members who voted for the bill and tried to pass it off as "protecting" the public’s privacy, 42 of them will be back on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

On the Senate side, nine of the Senators who voted for it who were standing for election got re-elected.

In the House, the only pro-HB477 representative who was voted out Tuesday night was Rep. Fred C. Cox. Of the other 17 who won’t be coming back for the 2013 session, Reps. David Butterfield, Brad Daw, Neal Hendrickson and Brad Galvez lost primary races, while Rep. Merlyn Newbold was turned out in convention. Rep. Patrick Painter lost a primary race for a state Senate seat, while Reps. Dave Clark, Carl Wimmer, Chris Herrod, Ken Sumsion and Steve Sandstrom either resigned or chose not to run for the House again so they could run for higher office.

Rep. Wayne Harper successfully ran for the Senate seat held by Senate President Michael Waddoups, an HB477 supporter who chose not to run again. Rep. Holly Richardson resigned to work on Sen. Dan Liljenquist’s unsuccessful bid to win the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, and was recently appointed to the State Records Committee.

All but one of the other House members chose not to run again.

Rep. John Dougall, the sponsor of HB477 won’t be back in the House because he won his race for state auditor, campaigning on a plat form of — you guessed it — increased transparency in government.

In the Senate, pro-HB477 Senators Curt Bramble, Allen Christensen, Lyle Hillyard, David Hinkins, Scott Jenkins, Mark Madsen, Ralph Okerlund, Steve Urquhart and John Valentine all won re-election. Liljenquist stepped down to run his unsuccessful U.S. Senate race.

The results were not a complete shock to open-government advocates.

"I’d like to say I’m surprised, but I’m not," said Janalee Tobias of the Save Our GRAMA group. "As citizens, we want our politicians to think that if they screw us over, they’re not going to get re-elected. But they know they will."

She said the public has proved its memory of outrage doesn’t last, pointing to former Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy and President Bill Clinton as examples of politicians whose careers were not hurt by major scandals.

Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, agreed.

"Unfortunately, the public’s memory is short," Petersen said. Also, there were other issues competing for the public’s attention, and many put the economy ahead of HB477, which the Legislature repealed in the face of the public backlash.

Tobias said it is also difficult for average people to make the public aware of a candidate’s wrongdoing. She said the politicians have greater resources to get their messages out.

But Petersen is confident that, should the Legislature try to eviscerate GRAMA again, the public will be back on Capitol Hill, as mad as they were before.

In case you’ve forgotten, the list of those who voted for HB477 in the House can be found here, while the Senate HB477 roll-call vote result is here.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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