What happened today in Wisconsin has rightly drawn national attention to the GOP’S malicious attack on the middle class and the lengths both illegal and devious to which they are willing to go to usurp the rights, protections and hard won wages and benefits of the working poor. It is however only one front in the war the American middle class is slowly awaking to. Another and potentially even more devastating broadside was fired by the heavily republican legislature and Governor Herbert of Utah this week. HB477 is a bill which completely guts the previous open government law in Utah known as the Government Records Access and Management Act.
It took less than twenty-four hours from the time it was first brought up in committee for the Utah legislature to pass the bill twenty-one to seven. The bill strips the public’s legal right to access to governmental records, communications and work product that had been guaranteed under the GRAMA act. It limits public access in a most draconian manner to all records in that it allows the individual governmental entity to determine the times and prices allowable to provide the few records that will still be available. There was a mostly bi-partisan negative reaction that even had the Mormon Church owned KSL in Salt Lake publishing an editorial in favor of rewriting the law after the governor signed it even though the original opposition to the bill had surprised him and given pause to his intent to do just that.
In an article dated March 3rd KSL reporter Con Psarras described the bill this way “The bill contains several specific changes to existing laws which would have far-reaching consequences. It would establish that all text messages, instant messages, recorded video chats, and voicemails are private, regardless of their content. It eliminates the language that describes the legislature's original intent in creating the 1991 law, which has been interpreted by the courts as a statement in support of considering the status of most records to be public first, private second. It also grants government agencies the ability to set fees to process a records request which could become substantial, if not prohibitive, or even punitive. ”
The republicans have stated that the new law is needed to prevent the news media from going on witch hunts with the express purpose of embarrassing legislators. My response to that is if you don’t do or say anything wrong you will have no reason to be embarrassed and if you do as a public employee supposedly doing the people’s business in a manner which represents their best interest we have a right to know. The type of embarrassment these legislators are trying to avoid would I assume be like that suffered when the payment of thirteen million dollars by the Utah Department of Transportation to a losing bidder on a highway project last year came to light in part because an e-mail requested by local media reveled an affair between a department employee and the bidder.
When all was said and done it had also been revealed that Governor Herbert had also been the recipient of over eighty thousand dollars in campaign contributions from the winning bidder and met twice with them in the weeks leading up to the bid award. There was another such scandal that came to light because of open government laws when the same governor Herbert received a ten thousand dollar campaign contribution from Alton Coal and met with them just before he put pressure on the approval process of the licenses and approvals they needed to start work on Utah’s first strip mine. Neither of these blatant pay for play scenarios amounted to much in Utah where a republican governor is second in influence and power only to the Prophet of the Mormon Church but under the new law no one would have even known about them.
When any government passes laws that removes the disinfectant provided by the light of day and open records laws you can be sure the infection of secrecy and things that go bump in the night will eventually not only blind lady justice to partiality but to everything done in the dark corners of the minds and hearts of those who enacted such a law. You do not propose, support and pass such laws unless you either currently have or plan someday to have something to hide from the taxpayers who pay you salary and have every right to know how and what you are doing in the performance of your duties to them as your ultimate employer.
As Utah is so far to the right that you can’t get there from here if you have any progressive tendencies at all there is not much hope that the final version of this law will look much different than the current version. It has generated more controversy than one would normally expect though and in an astonishing short amount of time. There is a public protest slated tomorrow at the capitol and it will be interesting to see if it includes more than the two hundred or so who showed up for the one protest rally held there in support of the Wisconsin protestors.
This situation is deserving of just as much dismay, notoriety and public reaction as what governor Walker and his republican posse did in Wisconsin but for that to happen it will have to be generated somewhere else and imported to Utah. If that does not happen then your state might be next and your school boards, legislatures, city and county governments and departments of whatever will blindfold you like they are doing in Utah and proceed to commence to begin to start to do whatever they want whenever they want to do it with no accountability to you or anyone else.