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Editorial: Utah State Records Committee makes two good calls for openness

Published March 18, 2017 3:12 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Many crucial, contentious and expensive issues sit on the agenda of Utah's political leaders and voters. Two of them got just a little bit easier to solve Thursday, thanks to decisions by the Utah State Records Committee that should open up some very useful information for decision-makers to chew on.

The panel told the State Tax Commission to make public the agreement it recently struck with online retailing behemoth Amazon, the one where Amazon has agreed to start collecting Utah sales tax on purchases by Utah residents. And it ruled that the state Division of Water Resources has to make public an internal database it uses to measure and predict the volume of water used in various communities around the state.

In both cases, the records panel agreed unanimously that the reasons given for withholding the information from interested groups, and from the public at large, were thin and that giving people access to information held by the powers that be makes them a little less powerful in relation to the rest of us.

The Amazon case matters because the battle over whether, and how, to claim the millions of dollars in uncollected sales taxes that are owed but not paid by customers in Utah, and across the nation, is being fought on multiple fronts across the country.

It goes beyond the questions of whether states have the constitutional authority to force online retailers based somewhere else to collect and remit the tax, as all businesses with physical presence in the state must. There is also the matter of just how much money is on the line.

If it's a lot, as Utah Gov. Gary Herbert says, that might make the fight worth it, for the state, for taxpayers who might find some relief if a new, untapped source of revenue comes on line and for the local brick-and-mortar stores that now find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

If it's not very much, as Overstock.com boss Jonathan Johnson claims, then it may be argued that it isn't worth the fuss.

It is also necessary, and fair, that taxpayers and rival businesses know what kind of deal the state cut with Amazon, again so we might decide if what we might have given up is worth what we are expected to get, and whether it is a deal that other retailers should expect, too.

Meanwhile, powerful interest groups are pushing for the construction of huge, multi-billion dollar water projects around the state. They include the Lake Powell pipeline and the construction of dams and reservoirs along the Bear River.

Environmental activists and others who question those plans rightly wonder if the data that underlies their justification, specifically reports on the amount of water used in various communities and predictions on how much they will need in the future, is valid. And they, and we, can't know that if it is held close to the state agency's vest.

The presumption of openness in a democracy is much more than symbolic, more even that an effort at fairness. It is a recognition that complex problems are more likely to solved, intelligently and fairly, with a maximum of information made available to a maximum of minds.

That's the idea behind the state's exemplary open-records laws, and behind the correct decisions made last week by the State Records Committee.




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