Senate Fast-Tracks Attack on Right-to-Know

Member Group : Democracy Raising PA

This week the state Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 1469 , sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester. Normally, such bi-partisanship could be worth celebrating. But not this time. This time, senators are united in their desire to limit even further what citizens can learn about their government and how it spends their money.

They’re also united in their desire to get it done in a hurry when people are distracted with other issues like Marcellus Shale. The first time the proposal became public was Monday, September 20. Two days later it came out of the State Government Committee with unanimous, bi-partisan support. On Monday, September 27, it went to the Appropriations Committee. The next day it re-emerged, again with unanimous, bi-partisan support. The day after that, the 29th, it passed unanimously. Two senators didn’t vote: Sen. Barry Stout, D-Washington, and Sen. Charles McIlhinney, R-Bucks.

The bill makes several changes to the open records law, some bad and some good. Regardless of its content, however, the lack of public hearings is disturbing. Lawmakers plainly think the right-to-know law belongs to them, not to the citizens.

Here are two editorials that summarize the issues raised.

Tell your Representatives: No backsliding on Pennsylvania’s open records law , Easton Express-Times, Oct. 1

Legislators target Right to Know , Washington Observer-Reporter, Oct. 1
The Bad News

Among other things, this proposal allows public agencies to charge citizens 12.5 cents per page merely for looking at a public document. Thus a citizen who needs to find just one page in a 100-page report could have to pay $12.50 to look at it, then another 25 cents for a copy of that page. Currently there is no charge for simply looking at documents.

SB 1469 also restricts the information citizens may get about contracts between their government and private entities. Specifically it says, "Financial information that is not directly related to the contract may be redacted."
At the heart of the criminal case against former Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, is a government contract. He is accused of using a government contract as a fig leaf to hide work done by the same contractor in support of partisan political campaigns at taxpayer expense. Arguably the Senate provision could prevent someone seeking information about this contract for legitimate services "directly related" to the legislature from being able to see that the contract also includes allegedly illegal payments for campaign work.

SB 1469 also takes away the public’s right to see the records of payments to tax collectors and municipal water and sewer authorities.

Among the things that haven’t changed is that lawmakers continue to exempt themselves and the judicial branch from many of the law’s most important features.


• Whose interests do these changes serve? Who asked senators for these changes?
• How long were senators and staff working on this before September 20?
• Why were there no public hearings about this legislation that affects the public’s right to know?

The Good News

The proposal requires public agencies to make documents available in computer formats if the records are kept in those formats. Particularly in the case of spreadsheets, this can make it far easier for citizens to find information they want.

It also requires public agencies to make available draft documents that are discussed at public meetings, whether the agency takes any action on the documents or not. This allows citizens to know more of the information public officials are using to make decisions.

Public records should be available to the public free of charge. Public agencies should budget for the release of public information in the same way they budget for electricity, office supplies, heating and cooling, salaries and every other ongoing expense. Not only does that encourage public access, but it gives agencies an incentive to put as much information as possible on the Internet in order to reduce their costs.

This legislation went through the Senate in less than two weeks, presumably with an understanding that the House will act on it. Otherwise why bother? Meanwhile 82% of PA voters want to amend the Constitution to prohibit lame-duck session, but lawmakers haven’t done that in two years.

There is nothing that requires us to take the bad with the good. We can have an open records law that is just plain good. In fact, we can have the best open records law in America. Why aren’t lawmakers working on that?

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