Utah House abandons a proposal to block journalists from House floor before debates, but it adds requirements for credentials

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, talks about HR4, which could ban journalists from the House floor before sessions begin, in front of the House Rules Standing Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City Monday, Feb. 26, 2018.

The Utah House backed away from a proposal to ban journalists from the House floor before debates, but journalists who hope to cover the Capitol would have to undergo anti-harassment training before receiving credentials under rules changes proposed Tuesday night.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, pitched blocking journalists’ access from the floor beginning 45 minutes before sessions started, a time when legislators typically are nowhere in sight. The proposed ban was first scaled back to five minutes before Dunnigan moved to get rid of it altogether during a late Tuesday night session.

Instead, journalists can interview lawmakers on the House floor and then leave, essentially outlining the rules that already existed.

“In talking to some of the media they find that the time right before we convene can be productive so we’re trying to address it in a different manner,” said Dunnigan, who said he originally filed the bill to give lawmakers time prepare for floor sessions.

News outlets came out strongly against further limiting floor access. Journalists, who already must undergo a background check before receiving Capitol press credentials, said they viewed the time before floor debates as a productive chance to interview lawmakers for news stories.

Journalists are still blocked from several hallways in the statehouse and routinely speak with lawmakers on the House floor.

House Republicans discussed the rule change in a caucus that they closed from the media, and several lawmakers said they weren’t comfortable with the idea of limiting journalists’ access.

“It’s much, much better than what we discussed earlier today,” said Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton. “In my newspaper days we used to sit right there, all the time, on the floor. I’m kind of saying like OK, I can support it, it’s fine.”

Under the new rule, journalists “may enter the chamber for the purpose of conducting a specific interview and shall exit the chamber promptly after completing the interview.”

“There was discussion earlier on different time limits when the media would be banned outright that a lot of us weren’t comfortable with,” said Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City. “It does solve the issue of the loitering and the eavesdropping and the peeping over shoulders. But it also gives media full access to come and interview whoever they need to and take care of business that they need to represent the eyes and ears of good transparency.”

On a day that they also voted to require lobbyists to take harassment training, lawmakers moved to add members of the news media to the list.

In order to report from the Capitol, journalists must “take annual training on unlawful harassment, and agree to abide by the Legislature’s policy on unlawful harassment.”

That proposal was in a bill separate from the rules change and must also pass the Senate before taking effect.

Feb. 26: Utah lawmakers vote to give themselves more powers and restrict journalist access

The Utah House advanced changes Monday that could slightly reduce journalists’ access to members, no longer allow legislative lawyers to warn formally when bills may be unconstitutional, and allow lawmakers to call themselves into special sessions.

The House Rules Committee approved all those actions and sent them to the full House for consideration.

That included voting 6-2 to endorse HR4. It originally proposed no longer allowing journalists onto the House floor for 45 minutes before that body convenes — a time used daily by most reporters covering the Legislature to reach and interview members. After media opposition, that period was shortened to five minutes.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said several colleagues asked for the change “expressing concern that when they are trying to get ready for the day, the media, the journalists are there — and they would like the time to prepare” in quiet without journalists hovering nearby.

Several news media opposed it, including Salt Lake Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce, saying it would hinder already-difficult access to lawmakers — and makes the Legislature look secretive.

“I do worry this measure sometimes conveys a message … that we are not welcome here, and the public is not welcome here,” said Ben Winslow, reporter for Fox 13.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben Winslow, a journalist for Fox 13 News, testifies against HR4, which could ban journalists from the House floor before sessions begin, in front of the House Rules Standing Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, Monday, Feb. 26, 2018.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jennifer Napier-Pearce, editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, testifies against HR4, which could ban journalists from the House floor before sessions begin, in front of the House Rules Standing Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, Monday, Feb. 26, 2018.

While lawmakers reduced the time that reporters must stay off the floor from 45 minutes to five, The Society of Professional Journalists of Utah still opposes that — and would prefer allowing reporters to question members up to moments before the House gavels into session.

The two committee members who opposed the resolution were its only Democrats. Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, said she has not seen reporters cause any disturbance and, “I think we need to be accessible to them, and the public has a right to know.”

The committee also voted 6-2 to advance HJR14, which would no longer require legislative lawyers to attach “constitutional notes” to legislation when they feel it may be unconstitutional. One was attached this year, for example, to a bill that would ban abortion of fetuses simply because they are diagnosed with Down syndrome.

The sponsor of HJR14, Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said Utah is the only state requiring such constitutional notes, and it makes no sense for attorneys writing bills to essentially outline for future opposing lawyers any potential flaws. He said the legislative and judicial branches are separate for a reason.

On a unanimous vote, the committee also endorsed HJR18 — a constitutional amendment that would allow lawmakers to call themselves into special session.

It results from a fight last summer when Gov. Gary Herbert refused to call the Legislature into session to set rules for the special election in the 3rd Congressional District to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who resigned.

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