With a 21-7 vote, the Utah Senate on Friday evening approved a bill that shields more state records and potentially increases fees for those wanting to view or obtain copies of public records.
House Bill 477, which amends Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act, was introduced in committee Wednesday and passed by the House of Representatives 61-12 on Thursday.
The 75-page bill changes GRAMA to prohibit the release of public officials' text messages, voice mails and other electronic communications, increases fees for members of the public or the media to obtain public records, and protects most communication between legislators and staff from the public eye.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, sponsored the bill in the Senate and told fellow lawmakers Friday he's aware the bill may make him unpopular.
"I was told I would now become a target, that I would not be reelected," he said. "I'm not doing this for me; I'm doing it for future legislators."
Hillyard and Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, who sponsored the measure, say GRAMA - a two-decade law - has been abused, especially by the news media. On Thursday, Dougall said the bill defends the taxpayer from paying the cost of "voluminous fishing expeditions" that consume time and money.
Both pushed for the bill to be approved immediately, despite pleas from the public, media and some lawmakers to slow the process to allow for more discussion.
Hillyard said the longer the bill sat without passage, the more information would get "out there."
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, was quoted in several Salt Lake-area media outlets Friday as saying the Senate wanted to pass the bill Friday to keep it from having "a weekend to fester."
He also told reporters the bill was put forward this year due to it not being an election year.
Proponents of HB477 say the issue has been looked at for several years in various committees and does not require further study.
"I guess I wouldn't say, ‘What's the rush?' I'd say, ‘What's the delay?'" Dougall said.
During the Senate session, Hillyard said legislators will meet with individuals who oppose HB477 after this year's session to discuss any needed changes.
The bill is now on Gov. Gary Herbert's desk; he has not indicated his position on the matter. Should he sign it, HB477 goes into effect immediately.
About an hour before the Senate vote, the Senate Rules Committee voted 5-2 in favor of the legislation after nine individuals spoke against the bill.
Among them was Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government. She called on senators to see GRAMA as a "citizen access law" - not a media law.
"Too many of our citizens are finding out about this bill this morning," she said. "Do you really call that due process?"
Petersen said open records requests may bother the Legislature, but HB477 is not the correct response for dealing with that frustration.
"There is a way to deal with nuisance without taking us out and shooting us or knifing GRAMA," she said.
Media attorney Jeff Hunt also testified, saying he believes Utah enters new territory by exempting text messages from the public record.
"There is no other state that has such an exemption in its open records law," he said. "In fact, the trend is going in the opposite direction."
Proponents argued that when GRAMA was drafted in 1992, lawmakers had no clue the direction electronic communication would take. Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, said he was in the House at the time and believes the intent of GRAMA is to make public records, not communications.
Valentine said he'd like to see a committee spend time this summer focusing on defining the difference between communications and records.
"We have changed in society how we communicate," he said.
Among the senators to vote against the bill was Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who said he was concerned with the speed at which it moved through the Legislature.
"I don't like this type of thing at the end of a session," he said. "I've seen it before; I hate it. If this is such a good thing, let it be aired and have some time."