HB477: Not quite dead yet

In 2011, Utah journalists and activists beat back one of the worst assaults on the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). While the Utah State Legislature was forced to withdraw House Bill 477 and pass legislation that would strengthen GRAMA, the spirit of the anti-transparency legislation still lives on in the halls of Utah’s Capitol.

The Salt Lake Tribune and the Utah Democratic Party requested documents pertaining to the state’s recent redistricting efforts. Lawmakers produced the records, first for the Democrats, but have only released one box of documents. The hold up? An almost $10,000 bill for researching and copying the records. While the Democrats paid a previously agreed to price of $5,000 for the work, the Republican-dominated legislature slapped an extra fee on, and only allowed the Democrats to take one box of the state’s choosing, holding the others back until the bill is paid.

The Tribune argued for a fee waiver, arguing that it was seeking the records for public benefit. GRAMA clearly defines journalism as inherently in the public interest, but the Legislature’s own records committee — comprised of legislative leaders — denied the request.

Eric Weeks, a legislative attorney, argued  that “When there is a significant cost to taxpayer funds involved in a request, our policy is to charge a fee for that regardless whether there’s a public interest test or not.” Weeks also argued that the state should not be used as a “free research service” by the news media.

That was one of the arguments supporters of HB477 threw out , proposing that the state not only recoup the time of employees tasked with filling records requests, but covering the employee’s benefits and utility costs for their offices.

Revealing the inner workings of Utah’s redistricting process is clearly in the public interest. The public has a right to know if legislators crafted districts with the intent of protecting incumbents and squeezing out opponents, a process that, in 2000, the Wall Street Journal called one of the most egregious cases of gerrymandering in the nation. Using outrageous fees, especially for documents that were already assembled and researched, could be seen as an attempt to keep the process shrouded in secrecy, further undermining public confidence in the Legislature.

But it also suggests that while lawmakers repealed HB477, they still have not got the message that transparent government is the best government.

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