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Legislator voted for HB477 out of fear of reprisal
HB477 • Heber City lawmaker feared reprisal if he said "no."

By Robert Gehrke The Salt Lake Tribune

Published March 16, 2011 11:12 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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A Utah House member has apologized to constituents for voting in favor of a bill restricting public access to government records, calling it an "abomination" and saying he voted for it because he felt like bills he considered important would be held hostage if he did not.

"I knew that these bills could easily be held and killed by leadership," Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, wrote in a letter to constituents in the Uintah Basin Standard. "I knew my 'no' vote would not change anything about the passage of [the open-records bill] but it could very well have doomed all chances of passing the legislation that my constituents had worked on with me for nearly a year."

Powell confirmed Tuesday that he planned to hold a news conference at 2 p.m. Tuesday. He did not detail the reasons for the event, but it was expected he would discuss his legislative future — and possibly his vote on HB477.

Powell had two bills — one that would guarantee compensation coverage to search-and-rescue workers and another to create economic development zones in the Uinta Basin — pending near the end of the session when lawmakers considered HB477 to change the state's records law.

Powell also said he was concerned that, with the Legislature poised to re-draw district boundaries this year, leadership might have "carved up" his district.

"I hope my constituents can understand my dilemma even a little bit, and someday forgive me for the abomination that is HB477," he said.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, denied there was ever any such pressure put on lawmakers.

"I have no idea where he would have gotten that," she said. "I categorically deny there was any pressure put on him. … When we told them about it, we said the press is really going to come after you on this one, so be prepared. That's it."

Powell, who voted for the bill twice, did not return a phone message and e-mail from The Tribune on Monday.

On March 7, Powell wrote a letter to constituents explaining what HB477 would do and laying out the nine reasons he voted for the measure.

There was no mention in that correspondence of intimidation or pressure from House leaders.

House Republicans discussed the bill in a closed-door caucus on March 1, just before the text of the legislation was publicly introduced.

Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, said Monday that he feels like he was given "unbelievably bad information" in that caucus and he ended up voting for a bad bill.

Days later, the Legislature cut a deal with Gov. Gary Herbert to recall the bill, postpone its effective date until July 1, and discuss the concepts in it further. If changes are needed, Herbert has said he would call a special session in June to revise the legislation.

"It should not have happened," said Pitcher. "What really upsets you is when you get personal testimony [from colleagues]. That meant a lot to me, but that dog just didn't hunt. … If there's any vote I could change in that whole legislative session, it was my first one [on HB477]."

Pitcher voted for the bill the first time it came up in the House but voted against it when it was recalled and passed with a delayed date.

Lockhart said the Republican caucus had staff attorneys come in and discuss the issue and "we made it very clear to them if they had any questions or concerns they were free to contact our staff."

If it were to take effect, the law would exempt all communications via text message, instant message or video chat from public access. It imposes new fees for obtaining information and ends a long-standing presumption that government records are public.

In all, 17 legislators — 15 Republicans and two Democrats — who had voted for HB477 when it passed March 3 voted against it when it was brought back with the July 1 implementation date.

One of them, Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, said he had reservations about his vote and met with Herbert to work out a plan to change the bill.

"The concern I had personally, and this is just me, it just went too far. It took me the weekend to really hammer it out in my own mind where I stood on it," Wimmer said. "I don't see why it's such a difficult issue to come to grips with: Anything that is done on taxpayer dollars, any phone paid for by taxpayers, any computer paid for by taxpayers … should be up for scrutiny."

But Wimmer said there was never any pressure from leadership to vote for the bill and says Powell is making excuses for his vote.

"There was no pressure, there was no threat," Wimmer said. "He's looking for a boogeyman that he can justify his vote with his constituents."

— Reporter Bob Mims contributed to this story



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