The HB477 Disaster

Written by Randal Serr on . Posted in Politics

HB477 passed in about as much time as it took Charlie Sheen to break the Guinness Book of World Records for most followers on Twitter in the least amount of time — and before the public knew what hit them, they just got a heaping load of Sheen-style nuttiness in the Utah legislature.

HB477 is a borderline crazy bill — if you believe in open democracy, anyway. I cannot figure out why people in both mainstream parties or anybody of any political ideology for that matter is not completely outraged by this bill. I think we can all agree that transparency in government is an essential part of democracy, maybe a few national security issues aside.

The bill can be summed up like this: it restricts public access to government records. It paves the way for corruption and conflict of interest. In other words, it gives Utah legislators a way to communicate with each other and with rogue power players in secret. It vaguely allows the Utah government to charge an unrestricted amount of money for access to their records, putting the burden on the public and on the media (rather than on the government) to disclose information about the Utah legislature as they see fit.

Perhaps most notable is that HB477 prohibits disclosure of text messages. Ten years ago that might not have been such a big deal, but texting is becoming more and more preferable to a phone call or even face-to-face conversation. Lobbyists that have the legislators’ cell phone numbers will now have free reign to text back and forth with the politicians, especially during hearings and debates. Lobbyists will have a say in every last bill on the floor. HB477 deters anyone from gaining access to communication that their supposed representative is having with powerful lobbyists. And as we all know, if there’s one thing lobbyists need, it is more power in the legislative process.

Protests at the Capitol have put Governor Herbert in a tough place. The majority of Utah legislators were under the impression they had him on board, and that the bill would take effect as soon as it passed. Once they had the go-ahead, they passed it within a few days with next to no debate. The public then became aware of how serious this bill was and Herbert was put under a lot of pressure to veto the bill. In the end, he passed an amended version, which is set to take effect in July. This is supposed to allow for a more open debate about the bill. Hopefully enough of the public will demand its defeat. The flip-side is that attention to the bill may die down by then and it will end up passing anyways.

This bill has the potential to affect every law that passes in the state of Utah, not just collective bargaining agreements or immigration policy. There are more protests planned at the Capitol and, if people understood the potential impact of this bill, I think we would see protests similar to those held recently in Wisconsin and Arizona.

I guess we will see just how much people care in the next few months.

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