Revolt in Utah over open records

Members of the Republican-dominated Utah state Legislature must have been patting themselves on the back earlier this month after they overwhelmingly passed a bill eviscerating Utah’s open records law, especially as it applies to the Legislature. The fact that they did so with a minimum of debate and public input made the easy victory that much sweeter.

But the public wasn’t thrilled with what lawmakers had done. Liberal politicians and tea partiers agreed the new law, HB 477, was terrible. Editorials and letters to the editor demanded its repeal. A petition drive was initiated to let voters repeal it.

State politicians, caught off guard by the firestorm of public opposition, did some quick pirouettes.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who signed HB 477 into law, this week called a special session of the already-adjourned Legislature for Friday to consider repeal of the law. He said its passage has “resulted in a loss of public confidence.”

House Republicans, meeting in a closed caucus Monday, agreed to support repeal of the bill during Friday’s special session. They also cited a loss of public confidence and concerns about the hasty process that was used to pass the bill.

Senate Republicans were more recalcitrant, however. They said they would support repeal of HB 477 only after a committee is empaneled to examine the state’s 20-year-old open records act and come up with recommendations to change it.

That’s not likely to satisfy angry Utahans, however.

When they passed HB 477, lawmakers claimed they were trying to protect the privacy of individuals whose information might be included in certain government documents, and to prevent taxpayers from footing the bill for information “fishing expeditions.”

In addition to exempting the Legislature from many open records requirements, HB 477 increases the fees for those requesting information and eliminates language promoting openness.

Utah folks saw through the legislative claims and recognized that HB 477 had as much to do with protecting lawmakers and other government officials from the prying eyes of the public as preserving individual privacy.

Transparency is key to good government. Voters must know what their elected and appointed officials are doing in order to cast knowledgeable ballots in the future, and trust their government now. Utah residents understand that, which is why their anger about HB 477 quickly galvanized.

We’re glad to hear Gov. Herbert and House Republicans swiftly recognized how much damage the anti-transparency law had done to public confidence in their government. Here’s hoping the Senate gets the same message and agrees to repeal the law Friday.

The Utah experience should be a lesson to politicians in other states who believe that they can willfully infringe on the public’s right to know and suffer no political consequences.


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