We are coming to the end of 2011.
It’s been an interesting year in Utah politics, with a number of surprises.
UtahPolicy managing editor Bryan Schott and I have been recording podcasts of what we believe are the Top 10 political stories of the year.
And as that process of reflection has taken place, I’ve been thinking about some of unanticipated events of the past 12 months. (At least I wasn’t smart enough to see them coming.)
For me, the biggest surprise was HB477 – the GRAMA “reform” bill introduced late in the 2011 Legislature by Republicans and then rushed through the bill-passing process.
Not only was the bill itself a surprise (it was a well-kept secret by GOP legislative leaders until it pop up the next-to-last week of the session), but also the reaction to it by the public and lawmakers alike.
I’ve covered the Legislature for more than 30 years (yes, I started as a child).
And every 10 years or so the majority party members (always Republicans) have done something really odd – the less kind among us would say stupid.
The GOP leaders don’t seem to learn from past public relations disasters.
Of course, much of that has to do with the fact that there is systematic turnover in the Legislature, so we have a new group of GOP leaders about every decade.
Part of what surprised me about the HB477 mess is that there WERE some veteran lawmakers in leadership in the 2011 Legislature – some of whom themselves have gone through some PR disasters during their Capitol Hill tenures.
In any case, reaction to HB477 even surprised me – an old legislative dog.
And so I suppose I can see that the old dogs in office last general session misjudged it, just like I did.
Certainly GOP Gov. Gary Herbert misjudged it.
As you recall (and Herbert, in explaining why he went along with the idea in the first place, tried to be very explicit about HKB477), the idea of tightening GRAMA law sprung from the Legislature itself.
In short, top lawmakers and their legal staffs were hit with a number of time-consuming GRAMA requests over the last several years.
Not only did legislators not like having to plow through all their emails and such, but media and other folks were claiming that smartphone text messages were also subject to GRAMA, increasing the document trail-work and providing even more possibilities of embarrassing stuff coming out through open records requests.
There were other issues that legislators – and especially their legal staffs – were concerned about in GRAMA.
So, with staff suggestions, GOP bosses decided to take on GRAMA in a non-election year (the 2011 session), run the bill late, take what heat would come, and then hope (and here was the really big political mistake) that the issue would go away as other more pressing public business took the headlines, emails and Tweets.
First off, it was dumb to bring HB477 up late and rush it through. No amount of justifying (saying the processes were followed, it was not unusual to do this, etc.) washed with the public and press.
Second, the response was completely messed up. Instead of staying the course, Herbert and GOP leaders decided to backtrack on HB477 quickly.
No doubt a front-page Salt Lake Tribune editorial calling Herbert a political hack had something to do with this.
But it wasn’t just the traditional media explosion that got Herbert’s and GOP lawmakers’ attention.
They were bombarded with emails, texts and Tweets from regular citizens (and even worse, Tea Party rank-and-file Republicans) calling them all kinds of names.
Key GOP legislators quickly turned and demanded repeal of HB477 in a special session.
If all the GOP legislators had been in one room and there was only one door to get out of HB477, a number of them would have been trampled to death in the ensuring mob rush.
A committee was set up (when you have a political disaster, always set up a committee).
Much study was done. And in the end, media, citizen and other experts decided that little should actually be done.
And so while there will be minor changes to GRAMA in the 2012 Legislature, the main disagreements that lead to HB477 won’t be solved.
At least not in the upcoming election year.
Were some lessons learned? You bet.
First off, the old traditional media still has a few teeth. Politicians suffer the bite at their own risk.
More importantly, the new social media outlets provide real government watchdog roles.
Politicians, especially the part-time legislators who don’t have the immediate PR responses they thought they had, had better wake up to that reality.
(Smart majority staffers, at the direction of several tech-savvy lawmakers, are redesigning the Legislature’s electronic systems with the hope, in part, to be able to better respond to any future HB477-type disasters.)
Of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
So the really wise thing for GOP legislators is not to walk into that bad PR buzz saw again.
But, like I said at the outset, about every 10 years the Legislature (and in Utah that means the GOP majority) does something really dumb – the less kind among us would say stupid.
Can we hope to avoid a repeat of HB477 until the early 2020s?
We can always hope. That’s what’s great about America.
Have a Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and good New Year.
And then we bear down and prepare ourselves for the 2012 Legislature.