SALT LAKE CITY -- Access to government records could become more difficult if a bill pending in the Legislature becomes law.
The House Public Utilities and Technology Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved House Bill 477, sponsored by Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork.
The bill now goes before the House for consideration.
Six news media executives, a representative of the Utah League of Women Voters and a representative of a private citizen's group spoke against the bill.
No one from the public spoke for the bill.
Dougall said the bill, if passed, would change the current Government Records Access Management Act to protect private correspondence between legislators and their constituents.
"Are you aware, if a constituent sends you an e-mail concerning a health bill and tells you about her child with a serious disease, that could be disclosed and be put in the front page of the newspaper?" Dougall said.
"Most citizens believe their e-mails are private."
He also said any correspondence between legislators and their interns or staff are subject to release under current GRAMA laws.
Under Dougall's bill, anyone seeking records from any government agency under GRAMA would have to pay for any research that takes more than 15 minutes.
He said that change is in response to GRAMA requests for "voluminous" documents.
Jeff Hunt, an attorney with the Utah Newspaper Coalition, said the current GRAMA laws were implemented in 1992 and have worked very well.
"This bill would do serious damage to the law," he said.
Hunt said media are concerned with the broadening exemptions of what is and what is not considered to be a public record.
Under existing GRAMA laws, government agencies already can charge for requests that are "voluminous," Hunt said.
"This is a major rollback to the statute," Hunt said after the committee meeting.
"We have the law to find out what (legislators) are doing."
Many of the news executives who testified said they only learned about the bill Tuesday when it was placed on the committee's agenda.
Linda Peterson, with the Utah Foundation for Open Government, said the bill would have serious ramifications.
Hunt said he met with Dougall and his staff before the committee hearing and asked what was behind the bill.
"Basically, nine GRAMA requests (legislators) got during this session on e-mails," Hunt said after the meeting.
The requests included e-mails concerning the feral cat bill, immigration and the budget, Hunt said.
Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, said legislators have asked media to be involved over the years to make adjustments to the bill, but they have "not been involved in the past."
Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, said as a former media person, he has a "major gut check" with the bill, but understands the issues and supports it.
He also asked Dougall to work with media representatives on the bill as it goes to the House and on to the Senate.
Dougall said he has always sponsored bills that brought openness and transparency to government and plans to work with the media as the bill progresses.