The fight surrounding an amendment to Utah’s open government law ended Friday when the state legislature passed a bill that officially repeals the controversial measure H.B. 477, but the future of Utah's records law remains uncertain.
Legislators passed H.B. 1001 Friday during a special session called by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. H.B. 1001 repeals H.B. 477, and allows the state to restart the process of amending Utah's open records laws.
The legislature came under fire from freedom of information advocates, the media and members of the public for initially passing H.B. 477 earlier this month during a rushed session with only 72 hours of public discussion.
H.B. 477 modified the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act and exempted from disclosure some forms of electronic communication, such as voicemail and text messages. Some opponents noted that the changes raised the burden of proof for those looking for information and they criticized how the bill allowed government officials or agencies who anticipated the possibility of litigation to deem certain records protected. Herbert signed the bill into law, but later called for the House and Senate to repeal it.
On Friday, the House quickly passed the repeal bill in a 60-3 vote, but the Senate responded with proposed amendments. One amendment required a date by which legislators would reconvene and pass a bill that would update the Government Records Access Act. Another amendment required that the state would hold two public hearings on any new Government Records Access Act legislation that a working group tasked with updating the act may propose. The Senate eventually passed the bill in a 19-5 vote without the amendments.
Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, was previously concerned about whether the legislature would be willing to repeal the law, but said she was ultimately "very pleased with the repeal."
"I think the legislature was responsive to the citizens of Utah who were overwhelmingly opposed to H.B. 477, and I still anticipate that the legislature will look at the changes to GRAMA [the Government Records Access and Management Act] as they do have a working group in place to study it," she said.
But the future of the act lies with the working group. Earlier this month, Herbert refused to sign H.B. 477 until the legislature formed a group specifically tasked with changing the law.
In a statement released after the repeal, Herbert said the group would uphold the ability of the public to access information about the government.
“As the Legislature's working group re-examines Utah's GRAMA statutes, I am confident all members will work diligently to craft recommendations which protect the public's right to know, protect an individual's legitimate right to privacy, and protect taxpayer dollars," Herbert said.
A representative at the governor's office said Herbert will most likely sign H.B. 1001 Wednesday evening.