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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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Kraig Powell wants lawmakers’ bill files open to public inspection

Another Utah lawmaker wants to make the Legislature’s bill-drafting process more transparent.

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber, is working on a bill that would, if passed, make bills in the drafting process public documents. Currently, legislators can ask that their bill files, as the nascent bills are called on Capitol Hill, be designated as protected documents under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act. That section also covers trade secrets, security arrangements at the Utah State Prison and documents in pending real-estate negotiations.

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Powell said his goal is to encourage more public comment during the Legislature’s 45-day annual session, when legislators rush to get through hundreds of bills before adjournment.

"I’ve often received phone calls with questions about the legislation that I have listed," said Powell, who said he has kept his bill files public. "[The calls] provide input and give me insights."

Powell is not the only lawmaker who is trying to pull back the curtains that mask Utah lawmaking.

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, has sponsored legislation that would ban the use of so-called "boxcars" — bills that are filed with no text and a vague title. The boxcars are used as placeholders to allow a lawmaker to introduce legislation at a later time.

Powell said if his and Osmond’s proposals had been in place in 2011, the state may have avoided the entire HB477 debacle, when then-Rep. John Dougall introduced legislation gutting GRAMA in the last days of the session. The bill, which flew through both houses and was signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, was repealed after a huge pubic outcry.

Claire Geddes, an open-government advocate, praised Powell’s efforts to force open bill files. Her only complaint with his bill? It wasn’t done sooner.

"Anything that is done secretly is not in the public’s interest," Geddes said.

She pointed to HB320 in the Legislature’s 2000 session. That bill, which removed the Committee for Consumer Services from the utility-rate-setting process, was kept under wraps until the last weeks of the session, Geddes said. The move left consumer advocates scrambling to fight it.



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