Utah is a study in contradictions. Against the backdrop of breathtaking vistas from the northern Wasatch Range to the red rock arches and mesas in southern national parks, Utah projects Hollywood images of western individualism.
Yet, despite an image of rugged independence, Utah politics is dominated by a unique brand of consensus conservatism. Because Republicans hold all statewide elected offices and the GOP has a super-majority grip on the legislature, many important decisions in the state get vetted as party matters rather than the public’s business.
Whether it’s redistricting, closed Republican Senate caucuses, secretive Medicaid expansion discussions or a lack of political campaign contribution limits, state Republican leaders often see no-holds-barred political spending and consensus-building as more important than transparency.
That means open government in Utah sometimes gets short shrift. As recently as 2011, lawmakers voted to gut the state’s open records law in just a few days with little public debate. Boisterous public outcry from across the political spectrum pushed lawmakers back into a special session to undo their actions. Even so, Utah gets only a C- category grade for access to information in the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. Stunningly, that grade actually ranked Utah tied for 2nd in the nation — but at least one observer said that’s nothing to aspire to.
“It’s actually quite disheartening,” said Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government. “It is astonishing that our government still largely operates in the shadows. And things are only getting worse.”
Added McKenzie Romero, president of the Utah Headliners chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists: “Utah is a state that shines in so many ways, why shouldn't information access be one of them?"
Indeed. Utah got failing grades in seven of the State Integrity Investigation’s 13 categories. Overall, the Beehive State Utah ranked 25th among all states, with a grade of D-. That was actually a ranking improvement from the first State Integrity Investigation in 2012, when Utah ranked 36th. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the questions and methodology, such as eliminating the category of redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.