As a member of the Utah House of Representatives, I am ashamed of my vote in favor of House Bill 477 amending Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). Many of my constituents, after reading the scathing accounts of this bill in media sources, have communicated to me their disgust and outrage at my vote. I offer my deepest apology to my constituents for my actions.
Here is what happened from my point of view. I had absolutely no knowledge of HB477, or anything like it, until March 1. I first learned of the proposed bill in a closed House Republican caucus. During that caucus, among other topics discussed, House Republican leaders explained to us that they would be introducing a bill to make a few needed changes to GRAMA. At that time, the text of the bill had not yet been made available to us or to the public.
Typically, it takes a minimum of three to four weeks for a bill to make its way through the Legislature. The traditional pattern of several committee hearings and floor debates in each chamber allows ample time in the media cycle for the press to analyze and publicize important bills and for the public to learn and provide feedback to their legislators through letters, phone calls and e-mails. That usual pattern was not followed in this case.
The text of HB477 was released in the late afternoon of March 1, after the closed caucus meeting. March 1 and March 2 were the busiest days of the 2011 legislative session, with dozens of items on committee agendas and committee meetings going late into each night. On Wednesday, March 2, at various times during the day, I read and tried to review the 59-page bill known as HB477 (along with many other bills), but time was very limited and I had no idea of the true significance of the bill. I worked through the overnight hours on both Tuesday and Wednesday nights researching the bills to be heard in my own committees, which did not include HB477.
On Thursday, March 3, HB477 was brought up for a vote in the full House. All 57 Republican representatives voted for the bill, including me. Four Democrats voted yes and 12 Democrats voted no. The vote was taken just two days after I had been told about the bill and less than 48 hours after the text of the bill had been made public. The bill passed the Senate the very next day and immediately went to the governor. The use of this expedited process did not allow for media reporting and public feedback on the bill prior to my vote.
With no intervening weekend to study the bill or reflect before casting my vote, I was unaware of the full significance of the bill or the feelings of the public on the issue. 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.
I imagine that at least some members of House leadership knew this fact, and so they chose to instead follow a highly-expedited process to avoid media attention and public scrutiny.
Many of my constituents have asked why I voted for HB477 if I could tell that the process was rushed and was apparently designed to hide something. My first answer, as stated above, is that I was not really aware of how significantthe bill was or how flawed its process was until well after I had voted.
My main answer to this question, however, has to do with the way the Legislature is governed. Nearly every important decision in the Legislature is made by the legislative leaders. House leaders decide committee assignments, committee chairmanships, and seating arrangements. Once the annual legislative session begins, the power of House leadership increases even further. Leadership has complete power to decide which bills move forward in the legislative process.
Leadership can stall bills in the Rules Committee or send bills to unfavorable committees. Then, in the last week of the session, leadership's power becomes supreme. This is because all bills still pending with one week remaining in the session are removed from consideration and selectively replaced on the House or Senate agenda simply at the pleasure of leadership. Legislators are completely at the mercy of leadership during this time and must do everything they can to stay in leaders good graces.
This episode has taught me that my highest priority now must be to work for reform of legislative rules and processes. I believe there should be strictrules that will prevent bills from being rushed through in a few short hours at the end of a legislative session.
I also believe that a main source of the HB477 travesty was the use of the closed caucus, which I will do everything in my power to eliminate.
What is most disheartening about the comments I am receiving is that many people look to me to set an example of ethics in the Legislature. I hope my constituents will still be able to see me as an example of ethics. To my knowledge, I am the only legislator in the state who has adopted aposition of not taking any donations from lobbyists or special interest groups.I do not have any special relationships with any lobbyists. I work only for thepeople.I have nothing to hide in my legislative activities, and will gladly make all of my e-mails, text messages, and documents available under any transparency law at any time. I had no reason or desire to vote for this bill, other thanwhat I have explained above.
I hope my constituents can understand my dilemma even a little bit, and some day forgive me for the abomination that is HB477.
Rep. Kraig Powell serves state House District 54, which encompasses Wasatch and Duchesne counties and a small segment of Uintah County. A longer version of his column originally ran in the Uintah Basin Standard. The Standard-Examiner will gladly print any apologies from Top of Utah legislators who voted in favor of HB477 if they desire.