SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, said that while he "wasn't forced" to vote for government records bill HB477, he didn't appreciate the position he and his colleagues were put in preceding the vote.
But repercussions from the public on the matter have led Powell to take on the cause of open government. He said that he plans to primarily devote his future legislative service to "make sure nothing like HB477 ever happens again."
"After experiencing the furor of my constituents this past two weeks, I worry that our legislative branch of government may never regain the trust it has lost through this episode," he said at a press conference held Tuesday in the Capitol Board Room.
The combination of the bill being introduced in a closed caucus, an expectation from House leadership to support it, and rules applicable only at the end of the session, Powell said, "seemed similar to blackmail."
However, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said it's not her style to pressure anyone and she's unsure where Powell "would have gotten the idea that his bills would be at risk."
Powell believes it was wrong to introduce the legislation, which aimed to amend Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act, in a closed House caucus meeting.
"Contrary to the opinions of many of my colleagues, who contend that open caucuses only produce superficial discussions, my experience in the House has been that our debates in open caucuses are much more informed, robust and meaningful than in closed caucus," he said, adding that lawmakers should be held to the same expectation that city and county councils, school boards and other agencies are held to under open meetings laws.
HB477, he said, should have also had the chance to run the "modern media cycle," giving the public time to read about the bill and respond accordingly to their representatives.
Lockhart said Republican caucus meetings require a majority vote in order to be closed, which was the case with that particular meeting.
"I ran on the platform of openness and you'd be hard-pressed to find a leadership that is more open," she said. "We're very open in terms of the people's access to the official actions of the Legislature."
Powell plans to introduce two pieces of legislation in the interim that would, first, keep meetings open when a quorum or a simple majority is present; and second, provide a 72-hour time period between when a bill is introduced and when any action is taken on it.
Conditions amended into HB477 prior to its final passage include that it will be vetted with various stakeholders during a 90-day time period, and a special legislative session, before it takes effect on July 1. Powell is certain that an agreement between the media, public and decision-makers can be reached during that time.
The bill exempts state lawmakers' texts and some other electronic communications, eliminates intent language that says government records are presumed to be public and increases the costs of requesting a government record.
It was first mentioned during a closed caucus meeting on one of the final days of the session, March 1. By March 4, the bill had passed both the House and Senate, despite overwhelming opposition by the public in two committee meetings. Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB477 into law, after leadership agreed to amend the bill, on March 8.
"My impression was that this was a bill that was going to pass, that it was a priority of leadership," Powell told KSL's Doug Wright Tuesday morning. Powell said the bill's text wasn't available the day it was introduced and it wasn't until after the vote was taken and after he realized what the bill contained, that he regretted what he had done.
"I was holding my head in my hands the entire weekend," Powell said, adding that he surely didn't have enough information to make an informed decision on the bill and neither did his constituents.
He secretly hoped the governor would veto the bill, because he said, "it was not worthy of being passed." But he maintains that he twice voted for the bill because, "I feared that important pieces of legislation I was sponsoring would not be given a fair chance of passage if I had voted otherwise."
Lockhart said there were other GOP lawmakers who changed their vote without consequence and also others who say they had plenty of time to digest the bill's contents and understand them.
"We listened to our constituents, we listened to the public, they had some concerns and we brought the bill back. We put a delayed effective date on it and hopefully by the end of the week, we'll have a working group put together with members of the public and other interested parties," Lockhart said, adding that the intention is to have the bill ready for a special session in June.
Powell apologized to his constituents for his "yea" votes on the bill, in his weekly Keeping House column submitted to his local newspapers for a March 15 publication in the Wasatch Wave and the Uintah Basin Standard. He said Tuesday that the risk of losing work done on his own sponsored bills was far too great to vote against the leadership on HB477.
Powell explained that the "highly-expedited process" in which the bill was passed, was likely intentional, given that not many would have voted for it had they understood what it entailed.
"I know that if the normal legislative process had been followed, I and many other legislators would have easily been able to gain the information about the bill that we needed, and I, along with many others, definitely would have voted against it," he wrote.
He says he will now champion efforts to reform legislative rules and processes to make sure something like this doesn't happen again.
"I hope my constituents will still be able to see me as an example of ethics," he wrote.