It is said that nothing can escape a black hole. But Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature do have the opportunity to pull Utah out of the darkness they sought to impose by approving HB477. This escape from the impenetrable void will not require a trick that violates the laws of physics, but an act of statesmanship that will restore what had been our state's exemplary open-records law.
The Legislature should repeal HB477 at its earliest opportunity. No tweaks. No amendments. Just a clean reversal.
There are signs that, given the opportunity, and given it soon, there will be enough votes to put the Government Records Management and Access Act back the way it was. Lawmakers such as Rep. Carl Wimmer and Rep. Kraig Powell have had the scales fall from their eyes and are openly recanting their previous support for the ramrodded bill.
That opportunity will only come, though, if Herbert quickly invokes his constitutional prerogative to call the Legislature into special session, and uses his power to set the session's agenda to seek a clean repeal of HB477.
Any delay will play into the hands of those who favor opaque government. Leaving the issue to a June session, as Herbert proposes, raises the risk that public ire will indeed cool, especially as another law sneaked through the process, SB165, has made the already difficult process of putting a referendum on the ballot nigh unto impossible.
HB477 places certain records off limits, imposes punitive fees and waiting periods and strikes the overarching language that instructed judges and administrators to favor openness. It earned the condemnation of the media, public interest groups, average apolitical Utahns and not a few card-carrying Republicans. The shame went viral, as Utah was awarded the Society of Professional Journalists' first-ever national Black Hole Award.
Herbert signed the bill anyway. But events quickly showed that his excuse that the measure had a veto-proof majority and would go into effect with or without him was flawed.
On the second vote, delaying the effective date from immediately to July 1, HB477 lost the votes of 15 Republicans and two Democrats. Had lawmakers faced a veto on top of the public outcry, the bill might have died then and there.
A successful veto would have been even more likely had Herbert vetoed HB477 after the session adjourned. Then a petition by two-thirds of each house would have been needed to even schedule an override vote, at which point lawmakers might have decided to turn down the heat and let HB477 die.
Now the governor and the Legislature will have to take positive action to repeal HB477. They should do so. Now.