We have made it through Week 2 of Utah’s Legislature’s general session. I’ll extend both congratulations for making it this far and a warning that the weeks ahead could get pretty wild if even some of the plans being hatched in the Capitol’s backrooms end up coming to fruition.
But before we venture down that path, I wanted to revisit a few things in the past week that I felt needed to be addressed.
I almost always disagree with Rep. Phil Lyman on everything. So it’s nice to point out when he’s right.
Last week, a House committee considered a bill by Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, that would enable government entities to charge for the first 15 minutes of work to process an open-records request if multiple requests are received within 10 days (usually there is no charge for the first quarter-hour).
The bill seems to come from Johnson’s county clerk, who said one resident was responsible for 39% of the records request his office receives. But I’ve talked to other current and local government workers who say a small number of requestors cost thousands of dollars in staff time.
Utah news outlets are opposed to the bill, while Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, is opposed to one news outlet in particular — this one.
“I would love to label The Salt Lake Tribune as a vexatious requester,” he said.
It was a weird cheapshot, since the only time I’m aware that we’ve requested records related to Thurston was four years ago after he was stripped of his committee assignments for a “pattern and practice” of inappropriate behavior toward women at the Capitol. How vexing!
At any rate, I doubt this bill will solve the problem. But if it’s amended to make the fee discretionary, entities can charge it in extreme cases and the person requesting the records can appeal that to the State Records Committee, at least it would be less likely to deter legitimate requests.
Or they can listen to Lyman, who objected to the bill altogether.
“People have a right … to frustrate government. Government shouldn’t have a right to frustrate people,” he said. “When you put in a new fee like this, it sends a strong message that government is in charge of this, and they’re not going to be controlled by the people.”
Last week, my colleague Bethany Rodgers wanted to try to get a sense of what protocols, if any, are in place when legislators test positive for Covid. She got stonewalled by staff in both the House and the Senate.
When she asked Utah Senate President Stuart Adams about COVID-19 protocols, the senator — who tested positive twice on opening day, only to claim he tested negative — dismissed the question completely.
“Those are obviously issues that we dealt with last week,” he said.
Here’s the reason we’ve been asking: In the first week of the session, Rep. Mark Strong confirmed he had tested positive. Multiple legislators told me his positive test came Tuesday, the opening day of the session. He was seen that day at the Capitol without a mask. The Deseret News even ran a photo of Strong entering the chamber Tuesday morning, unmasked, holding a test.
Staff claimed Strong had tested positive the week before.
But the point is, while Adams and other legislators might think this is a trivial thing, it is not. Many legislators are, themselves, old and at-risk. On top of that you have staff, advocates, press and members of the public interacting with lawmakers at the Capitol.
Disclosing COVID-19 protocols — or the lack thereof — to the public is not unreasonable; dismissing a legitimate public health concern is.
Gehrke the Uniter
In his new conference Friday, House Speaker Brad Wilson took a swipe at one news outlet that he said was “creating division in our state” — again, this one.
I had planned to do this before Wilson’s comments, but in the spirit of bringing people together, here are a few things lawmakers got right this week:
• A House committee approved a Senate-passed bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, clarifying that public employees — including firefighters — can’t be suspended or terminated simply for possessing a medical marijuana card.
• A Senate committee OK’d a bill by Sen. Todd Weiler to get rid of monetary penalties in juvenile court cases.
• Rep. Johnson introduced a bill that aims to help refugee students acclimate and succeed in their new schools.
• A House committee approved a bill by Rep. Stephanie Pitcher that would make it easier for crime victims to keep their addresses confidential.
• A bill by Rep. Matthew Glynn, R-Farr West, would limit situations where police can use no-knock warrants. The bill got through committee last week.
• Finally, we’re starting to see water bills, including Rep. Joel Ferry’s bill that lets water owners temporarily donate or lease away water for conservation. His bill went through a committee unanimously.