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After accusing the news media of abusing open records laws to embarrass lawmakers, the House on Thursday passed a bill to shield more records from public release including legislative records and to increase fees for obtaining what is available.
The House voted 61-12 to pass HB477 by Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, and sent it to the Senate.
The 75-page bill quickly whipped through the House after being unveiled Tuesday night, facing a hearing on Wednesday and passing the full House on Thursday after a brief 15-minute debate where few members spoke.
Rep. Neal Hendrickson, D-West Valley City, complained the media opposed the bill for personal reasons about changes it would make to the Government Records Access and Management Act, called GRAMA.
"The press thinks they are going to miss out on an opportunity that they can go fishing for some information and dig up some dirt on us," he said.
Dougall said changes would "defend the taxpayer from paying the cost of voluminous fishing expeditions, which consume thousands upon tens of thousands of dollars." He added, "Constituents do not want government to be ground to a halt. They want it to function. And that's what this bill tries to do."
House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R- Draper, complained to the media before the debate that legislative staff members had spent more than 400 hours over the past year on GRAMA requests. Since the session began 10 GRAMA requests have been filed by the news media.
However, one filed by The Salt Lake Tribune, for example, was for a seven-page social calendar from each house, which could be photocopied in minutes but took days to obtain. It provided data for a story about special-interest groups that sponsor meals and entertainment for lawmakers.
The Associated Press filed a more complicated request seeking e-mails between top legislative leaders and the governor on the budget but said it had offered to narrow it if needed. House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, complained to reporters that such requests take an inordinate amount of time of staff and members, and hurt work of the Legislature during its short 45-day session.
Dougall also told the House that the bill would "protect the privacy of citizens, who when they send correspondence to you they believe it is confidential," and do not want it released to the media or others.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, told the House that the bill would make "far-reaching changes" that deserve more scrutiny than allowed by the quick action this week. She asked members not to pass the bill and send it instead for study and bring it back next year.
Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, said similar study had occurred previously, and said the news media refused to support any but minor changes.
Gov. Gary Herbert said on Thursday that if the bill "comes to my desk, we will review it methodically before we make any decisions."
He added, "I need to have time to wade through the bill, understand what it means and what it does and what it doesn't do. There seems to be a little confusion out there and I'm not certain all the motivation" behind the bill.
Herbert said he was not involved in putting the bill together.
Lockhart's daily media availability had sometimes heated exchanges with reporters, who asked why the GRAMA bill appeared to come up by surprise with little or no consultation and pushed through the House quickly.
"A bill file had been there for weeks," Lockhart said, adding that should have prevented any surprise, although it had only a title and no text until the day before its hearing. "We've had 20 years to look at GRAMA," she added, saying changes had been discussed in general for years.
Lockhart also said changes in GRAMA "are to protect the public." She said many citizens send e-mails or otherwise send personal stories that they likely do not suspect could be public records and would not want to be released.
Lockhart cut short her availability amid tough questioning, saying she needed to convene the afternoon session of the House but did not convene it for another 20 minutes.
While news media representatives had testified against the bill on Wednesday, the League of Women Voters also was campaigning against the bill.
It sent legislators a letter on Thursday calling the bill "a frontal assault on the long-standing protections of GRAMA."
It complained that it would add exemptions from GRAMA "for whole categories of information, including, but not limited to, legislative information" to protect lawmakers.
It said the bill "changes the whole intent of GRAMA," calling for removal of a requirement for officials to balance the need for confidentiality against the interest of public disclosure. The letter also complained that higher fees it would could impose create "financial roadblocks for those seeking government information."