Utah Lawmakers Go For Less Transparency — And More Power

Rick BowmerAP Images

The Utah House of Representatives moved ahead alterations Monday that could somewhat cut down the press’ ability to speak with lawmakers, stop permitting attorneys for the legislature to officially herald when legislation might clash with the constitution, and grant lawmakers the ability to bring themselves into special sessions.

The House Rules Committee gave the nod to all of the bills, sending them to the full House to be voted on, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Among the motions was voting 6-2 in favor of House Resolution 4. Initially, the bill proposed forbidding reporters from the House floor for 45 minutes before that the House begins to meet. That span of time is utilized every day by most journalists assigned to the Legislature, to speak with members. After opposition from members of the press, that span of time was cut down to five minutes, the Tribune reported.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, remarked that many fellow members of the legislature requested the change, “expressing concern that when they are trying to get ready for the day, the media, the journalists are there — and they would like the time to prepare” in quiet, without journalists hovering nearby, according to the Tribune.

That wasn’t convincing to the Standard-Examiner.

“When you ban journalists from the floor of the Utah House, you’re not just cutting off the media — you’re avoiding the public,” the newspaper wrote. “But that doesn’t matter to Rep. Jim Dunnigan or the House Rules Committee.”

In the committee, several reporters opposed the resolution. Among them was Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce. She said it would limit time with lawmakers that’s already difficult to obtain — and makes the Legislature look like it’s hiding things, the Tribune reported.

Salt Lake Tribune editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce spoke against Utah House Resolution 4 would limit press access in the state House of Representatives.
In this April 20, 2016, file photo, copies of The Salt Lake Tribune newspaper is shown, in Salt Lake City. Tribune editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce testified against Utah House Resolution 4, which would limit press access to the state House of Representatives.Featured image credit: Rick BowmerAssociated Press

While legislators cut down the time that journalists can’t be on the floor from 45 minutes to five, the Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists remained opposed SPJ President McKenzie Romero said HR4 cuts the public out of the democratic process.

“Journalists and lawmakers here are working toward the same purpose and that is serving the public,” Romero testified, according to the Standard. “When access is restricted to lawmakers that is essentially restricting the public from having access to the people who’ve been elected to represent them.”

The Standard also remained in opposition to the time being shortened.

“The amount of time doesn’t matter,” the newspaper wrote. “Whenever lawmakers shield themselves from the public, even for five minutes a day, it tilts the balance of power toward those with money and access.”

The two legislators on the committee who were against the bill were the only Democrats in that body. Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, remarked that she has not seen journalists be a bother.

“I think we need to be accessible to them, and the public has a right to know,” Moss said, according to the Tribune.

“(Journalists) act on behalf of the public,” the Standard wrote. “And the last thing we should do is restrict the public’s access to Utah lawmakers.”

“Dunnigan… said representatives needed some quiet time to prepare for work. Work,” the Standard added. “As in passing laws that affects the lives of 3 million Utahns.”

“Often that legislation is confusing. Sometimes it’s controversial,” the Standard remarked. “People need insight to understand what’s at stake. When they do, journalists act on their behalf.”

“Dunnigan’s bill sends the message that lawmakers can’t be bothered — the public can wait,” the Standard wrote.

“I do worry this measure sometimes conveys a message … that we are not welcome here, and the public is not welcome here,” said KSTU Fox 13 reporter Ben Winslow, according to the Tribune.

The committee also went 6-2 to move ahead House Joint Resolution 14, which would end the requirement that attorneys for the legislature affix “constitutional notes” to bills when they think it might be unconstitutional, the Tribune reported.

Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, was the sponsor of HJR14. He said Utah is the only state that mandates such notes, and it does not make sense for lawyers putting together legislation to basically articulate possible issues for attorneys with opposing positions down the road. He remarked that there’s a purpose for the judicial and legislative branches to be separate, according to the Tribune.

The committee, without opposing votes, also advanced House Joint Resolution 18, a constitutional amendment that would permit legislators to bring themselves into special sessions, the Tribune reported.