It was a well-planned and swiftly executed mob hit. But just enough light remained at the scene of the crime to illuminate the perpetrators of House Bill 477, an instrument that leaves Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act dead on the floor.
Utah’s legislative leaders got what they wanted in the bushwhacking: a broad new cloak of secrecy for government operations in the state, and a satisfying smackdown of news media pests and citizens groups who lawmakers said have incessantly tormented government with requests for records.
But the overreaching arrogance and the disdain for citizens, democracy and transparency in government has drawn an unprecedented blowback for the House and Senate powers (and for their willing sidekick, Gov. Gary Herbert, who signed the bill into law). For starters, some back-bench House Republicans have broken ranks to complain publicly how the bill was rushed and how, they said, they had no choice but to go along for fear of leadership reprisals.
The gut-GRAMA law is viewed as so egregious that a voter referendum campaign already has sprung up. Backers hope to take the issue to an election so Utah voters can blot out HB 477.
And on Tuesday, the Society of Professional Journalists bestowed its national Black Hole Award on Herbert and the Legislature, saying, “This is by far the most anti-democratic secrecy legislation we have ever seen in the United States.”
I’m guessing this award won’t be included in the state’s business development and tourism brochures.
SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee chairman, David Cuillier, said he compared HB 477 with laws from other nations. Not good. He came to the awful conclusion that “Utah will be more backward than most other countries, including Mexico and former Soviet republics Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan.”
Critics of HB 477 also have zeroed in on not only the chilling substance of the bill, but also on the leadership’s weak or overblown arguments for the legislation. The leaders cited privacy fears and the costs of handling “fishing expedition” records requests. Locking up texts, e-mails and other electronic records was justified as controlling the effects of technology progress. They ignored the truth of the matter, that the original GRAMA law explicitly took into account privacy issues and technology changes and established procedures for weighing all requests.
It will be interesting to see how the creators of HB 477 will react when the law supposedly will come up for review in a June special session. Will they back away from their repugnant secrecy vessel and allow it to be killed? Or will they dig in and preserve it to take effect July 1?
I expect them to fight back from the putrid corner they’ve legislated themselves into. They’ll lash out at their imagined tormentors and keep GRAMA in the casket. After the reprehensible gangster act of the past two weeks, why imagine it will be otherwise?