Senate Open Records Reform: Good, But Can Be Better

State government watchdogs provide input on proposed SB 1 changes

HARRISBURG – The effort to overhaul Pennsylvania’s Open Records law will take center stage at the rescheduled Senate State Government Committee meeting at noon today. Last week, leaders from various government watchdog organizations requested additional time to better analyze Senate Bill 1 and its amendments. In advance of today’s committee votes, they offered their perspectives on the proposed changes.

“We are pleased that this important ‘good government’ legislation is moving forward in the Senate, and we commend Sen. Pileggi for continuing to improve his bill with this recent amendment,” said Matthew Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation, a non-partisan public policy think tank. “However, we believe it is highly critical that Sen. Piccola’s amendments are included in the final version of the bill.”

Sen. Jeff Piccola, chairman of the Senate State Government Committee, is offering two substantive amendments to Sen. Dominic Pileggi’s amendment, which is being submitted by Sen. Jake Corman.

One of Piccola’s amendments (A03800 to SB1) would require the General Assembly to provide public records as long as they do not meet one of the enumerated exceptions in the law. “This is merely stating that the same presumption of openness should be equally applied to all branches of state government,” said Brouillette. “Without this amendment, many public records in the legislature would not be accessible to the public.”

Another amendment (A03799 to SB1) to be offered by Sen. Piccola would allow public access to records related to so-called “walking around money,” or WAMs, which are legislative disbursements of appropriations.

Eric Epstein of Rock the Capital, a non-partisan voter education organization, said this amendment is “opens the WAM process to public inspection, and allows sunshine to penetrate the legislative board room.” Currently, these public documents are exempted in the Open Records law and the current version of Senate Bill 1.

Barry Kauffman of Common Cause/PA also commended the progress on Senate Bill 1 because the Committee took the necessary time to study the bill. While important progress is being made, he noted concerns about the lack of a truly independent oversight and appeals agency with authority over all agencies.

“Common Cause is not going to settle for pretend Open Records reform,” said Kauffman. “The Pileggi and Piccola proposals get us closer to the goal of passing a law that truly serves citizens’ legitimate interests in seeing what their governments are up to. Without real Open Records rights, Pennsylvanians are seriously hindered in their ability to hold government officials accountable for their actions.”

Tim Potts of Democracy Rising PA, a citizen movement to give Pennsylvania the highest standards of public integrity in the U.S., agreed. “Sen. Pileggi’s and Sen. Piccola’s proposed amendments to SB 1 take us closer to a proposal that would give Pennsylvania the best open records law in America,” he said. “We look forward to achieving that goal as the bill takes additional steps in the legislative process.”

Collectively, the organizations expressed pleasure in the positive direction of Senate Bill 1, but consider the amendments offered by Sen. Piccola to be imperative to the Open Records reform effort. “Without these necessary changes, the progress made to date will be for naught,” concluded Brouillette.

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Eric Epstein, Rock the Capital, (717) 541-1101
Barry Kauffman, Common Cause/PA, (717) 232-9951
Tim Potts, Democracy Rising PA, (717) 571-9471
Matthew Brouillette, Commonwealth Foundation, (717) 671-1901

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