This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
Rep. Kraig Powell backed away Tuesday from his claim that legislative leaders pressured him into voting for a bill restricting access to public records.
Powell said there was no explicit threat from House leaders that bills he was sponsoring wouldn't pass if he didn't vote for the records bill. But it was clear that leaders wanted the records bill passed and Powell didn't want to risk having his bills killed.
The Republican from Heber City said it "seemed similar to blackmail," and apologized to constituents for twice voting for the records bill, HB477.
Powell said breakdowns in the legislative process allowed HB477 to pass. First, he said, the bill shouldn't have been debated behind closed doors in the House Republican caucus. Second, he said, the bill shouldn't have been rushed through.
To address those issues, Powell plans to sponsor two bills that would require legislative caucuses to be open if a majority of the body is present. This year House Republicans broke with tradition and closed nearly all of its caucuses; the Senate GOP closed every caucus it held as it has in the past.
"My experience in the House has been that our debates in open caucus are much more informed, robust and meaningful than those in closed caucus," Powell said. "I can see no justification for this exemption [from the Open and Public Meetings Act]."
Powell's other bill would require bills be made public 72 hours before they are voted on. Powell, the Heber City attorney, said that would give constituents time to voice their opinions.
On Monday, Powell created a stir by writing a column that appeared in two local publications and online, stating that he voted for HB477 because he feared his bills would die if he did not. In a radio interview, he said it was essentially blackmail.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart denied that there was any pressure put on Powell to support HB477.
On Tuesday, Lockhart said Powell's claims of blackmail were "obviously untrue and he's admitted that."
She said he can file any legislation he wants, but the House members have always voted to close the caucus. It is not something imposed on them by leaders.
Lockhart said there will be no reprisal against Powell for his statements. In the future if Powell has concerns, she said her door is open to discuss them.
Powell voted for HB477 on March 3, two days after it was presented to members in a closed caucus. That weekend he wrote a lengthy piece defending the bill. But Gov. Gary Herbert objected to the process and cut a deal with lawmakers to postpone the implementation until July 1, allowing time to debate the open-records issues and determine if changes need to be made.
On March 7, Powell again voted for the bill, even though he said that at the time he realized it was bad legislation and he wishes he hadn't voted in favor of it.
He attended a protest against the bill on March 8 and his column explaining his votes in favor of the bill were published this past weekend.
Powell said he still voted for the GRAMA bill when it was reconsidered because his bills particularly one to create enterprise zones in his district hadn't passed. Fifteen Republicans and two Democrats who had voted for the bill the first time voted against it when it came back. Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, was one of those. He said that time was short when the House took its first vote, but by the time it came back to the body his constituents had made clear that they opposed it, so he voted against it.
On Tuesday, supporters of a referendum to repeal HB477 received their first set of 250 stamped petitions and began collecting signatures to put the repeal on the 2012 ballot. They have about 35 days left to collect some 100,000 signatures under a new law passed during the session. Referendum backers say they filed their application before the law was signed. They also are trying to get an initiative on the ballot that would remove some of the restrictions on citizen-driven lawmaking.
P On Thursday at 11 a.m., organizers of a referendum to repeal HB477 are inviting supporters to come to the Capitol to "visit their sick GRAMA," and sign the petition.
And the Utah Society of Professional Journalists and the League of Women Voters will have a forum Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Library to discuss the ramifications of HB477.