March 7th, 2011

Utah’s HB477 and Legislative Hypocrisy


photo credit: WTL Photos

As the last weekend before the 2011 general legislative session concludes its brief existence, it’s little wonder that political circles would be abuzz with controversy and chatter regarding the latest legislative developments. Rather than a split focus on multiple bills, or along typical partisan lines, this weekend’s discussion has pitted the legislature itself against the media and citizenry.

I refer to HB477, a bill sponsored by my Representative, John Dougall. This bill would, among several other things, amend the existing GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act) law to exempt instant messages, voicemails, video chats, and texts from records requests available to the public. While I believe there are many strong arguments to be made against the technical aspects of the bill itself, my commentary here will instead be focused on the procedural aspects surrounding its passage.

You see, while many individuals (including, no doubt, many/most of our state legislators) rightly lambast Congress for a whole host of parliamentary shenanigans and procedural corruption, it appears that the same arguments are not being equally applied to the state legislature. This is hypocritical.

More dark of night than light of day

The Sunlight Foundation is a major proponent of the effort to require that bills proposed in Congress be submitted for public review three days prior to a vote. Barack Obama campaigned on this idea, promising to not sign any non-emergency bill until the public had five days to review and provide input. (You can probably make a good guess as to whether he kept that promise.)

This is a good effort. Too many shady bills have been rammed through Congress with no time for public inquiry and input. Sadly, Utah’s legislature is not free of such lightning-speed legislative projects. This is partially due to the fact that the session only lasts 45 days, and many requests for legislation are made late in the game, applying a significant amount of pressure on the legislative attorneys and research staff who this year have faced a "logjam" of bills to produce. Many new bills will be released for the first time in this last week of the session, will avoid committee meetings altogether as a result, and will receive quick floor votes to determine the bill’s fate. The public is forced to tolerate this consequence of a part time legislature.

One is left to wonder, though, if other bills of similar magnitude have ever been given such high priority and rushed through the legislative proceedings with no delay. HB477 was released on March 1st, considered and passed in a House committee the following day, voted on in the floor on the 3rd, and then passed through a Senate committee and final floor vote on the 4th. In light of the part time legislature, this may be tolerable for your average bill—say, those dealing with bath salts, feral cats, guns, and gold—but to spring a bill of this length and magnitude on the public with less than 24 hours to review and react is flat out wrong.

One reason why this occurred was surprisingly provided by Senate President Michael Waddoups who told reporters that “it will complicate matters if it [HB477] has a weekend to fester.” He further noted that “nobody likes to do this in an election year, so now is the time.” Such candidness reveals more than the rational mind might conjure up as reasons for such haste.

Read the bill

How many times do you observe complaints that Congress passes bills spanning hundreds if not thousands of pages which its members have neither written nor read? The steady proliferation of omnibus bills and thick tomes of legalese makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any congressman voting in favor of any such bill to claim to have read its provisions and understand its implications.

An organization named Downsize DC has proposed legislation that would require bills to be read aloud in full in Congress, and would further require that “every member of the House and Senate must sign a sworn affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that he or she has attentively either personally read, or heard read, the complete bill to be voted on.”

This, too, is a good effort—one which also might find application in our own legislature. With the length and complexity of HB477, it is fair to ask: did anybody other than the sponsors read it? If any other legislators did read it, they are surely in the minority. Others no doubt relied on talking points and summary statements to earn their vote, thus giving their consent to a bill they had not read nor, it can only be assumed, fully understood.

It is unfair, of course, to only target HB477 in regards to this legislative deficiency. It may be accurate to claim that the majority of votes cast in the legislature are for bills that have not been read by the individual casting the vote. This is a problem.

Under the radar

When legislators open a “bill file” to request that a bill be written or reviewed, the public is able to see the title of that request only. So as to avoid public scrutiny prior to the bill’s final text being released, these titles are often impregnated with vague words so as to mask the intent and issue of the bill. This is not entirely unreasonable, as it would be unproductive to invite heated debate on something that has yet to be produced. Still, one might think that the words would at least be descriptive enough to relate to the underlying issue. HB477’s bill file title, however, was “Changes to General Government”—a title not at all descriptive of, nor even relating to, the changes being made to the GRAMA law.

While this bit of deception may be an intelligent tactical move, it ultimately serves to prevent the public from observing what legislation is being drafted and providing their perspective and input. How can a representative represent if his/her constituents are not afforded enough opportunity to observe and respond to their activities?

Conclusion

I do not believe that all of the changes included in HB477 are bad. I do disagree with many of them. As HB477’s sponsor is my own representative, I must say that I feel somewhat cheated in being denied the opportunity to pass along my input on the bill. Supporters argue that the bill has been in the works for years; I was and am oblivious to this. I work full time, freelance on the side, juggle family, church, home responsibilities, as well as invest a significant amount of time in political activism, which at the moment includes tracking dozens of bills of interest in the legislature. We’re all busy. To deny us the opportunity to review a bill and offer comment for consideration prior to a vote is unfortunate, when a mere byproduct of our part time legislature and the normal and fair proceedings of that body, and unconscionable, when rammed through both chambers by leadership concerned about a bill “festering” in the public sphere for two days.

Heaven forbid the media help shine a little sunlight into the dark corners of the legislature’s 45 day blitz. Should HB477 become law, and that darkness be allowed to increase, one can only wonder where the actual “festering” will take place.

10 Responses to “Utah’s HB477 and Legislative Hypocrisy”

  1. Rebekah Whyte
    March 7, 2011 at 9:04 am #

    I am pretty disappointed in the fact that Dougall would not help us sponsor the Gold bill but had time to be the lone sponsor for this bill. As time goes on I am more convinced we should not have a legislative branch.

  2. Clumpy
    March 7, 2011 at 9:26 am #

    The connection to this incident seems pretty apparent:

    http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/home/50380527-76/udot-easton-relationship-contractor.html.csp

    Whether or not it’s hush money, the $13 million awarded the LOSING contractor certainly looks shady, and ought to make anybody’s blood boil. When was the last time you got a year’s salary for being rejected at a job interview?

    These texts, e-mails and messages are NOT these representatives’ – they are OURS. And introducing a bill like this right after one of the greater Utah scandals it pretty typical of our blustering, dysfunctional and petty legislature.

  3. Tammy and Parker
    March 7, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

    Connor,

    I didn’t realize you had a blog. It must not have come up during our bantering on John’s FB page.

    I keep going back and forth on this one. I’ve asked both John and Holly about it, they explain it to me and then I’ll read something new.

    One article I read said that when a GRAMA request is made any personal information is already blacked out.

    Tammy and Parker
    http://www.prayingforparker.com
    http://www.momitforward.com

  4. Brian Anderson
    March 7, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    I’m glad to see you weigh in on this Mr. Boyack. I’ve enjoyed reading your articles on C4L. Actually changed my mind on issues such as Immigration. I appreciate your insight. Keep up the good work.

  5. Amy K
    March 7, 2011 at 5:03 pm #

    The idea that “instant messages, voicemails, video chats, and texts” should be privileged is, frankly, ludicrous. The technology is a tool and only a tool. The content still concerns government business and thus should be open to public record. Should we “protect things” written in pen, but not those written in pencil? Is a drawing open to us but a photograph hidden?

  6. John W
    March 7, 2011 at 11:39 pm #

    I just came to this blog because I am concerned about this issue. I appreciate the writing you have done here to help educate the public. Keep up the good work!

  7. Dwight
    March 9, 2011 at 2:47 am #

    I’m not usually one to throw my religious beliefs so directly into my politics. I do find it funny that a predominantly Mormon government has passed this law that reeks of having come out of a Gadianton Robber handbook. There may be problems with GRAMA, but you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It would be naïve to think the exemptions won’t be abused widely.

  8. Dave P.
    March 9, 2011 at 9:51 am #

    Dwight, the Gadiantons infiltrated the church a long time ago (even before the saints migrated to Utah). This sort of action is no longer surprising to people who’ve awakened to the situation as spoken of in the Book of Mormon.

  9. marcus
    March 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    Amen Connor….I believe that perseption is everthing in politics. There is no time to read every word in every bill, so one has to use 3rd party information and draw conclusions from that information….it’s sad, but a reality…oftentimes we have to make judgements about not only a bill, but how congressman react to its passage, what they say about the bill, and other forms of non-communication and body language… And in this case, we watched a bill being shoved through with little time to debate, and a congressman who says it would be a problem to let this bill fester any longer. We, as people, who dont have the time to read everything, has to rely on these 3rd party messages to come to an understanding of what a bill means…. that is why preception is everything…..how I percieve the bill, through these 3rd party messages, even though i have never read the bill, is what 99% of voting america does….and what 90% of our legislature does…..what does all this mean? The politicans are the only ones to blame for the increased media attention because they have added to the knowledge to preception gap by the way they have acted….What did our politicans expect from this clear push towards non-transparency? If they would have given more time for debate, and to shed light on the subject, the preception curve would have been lessened…now, all I can do, like other citizens, is complain and react by saying NO!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Utah’s Obamacare Legislature: HB116 (Amnesty) and HB477 (GRAMA) « Utah Rattler - March 7, 2011

    […] Obamacare down our throats but then effectively followed suit.  It is hypocritical (also noted by Mr. Boyack) and […]

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