- Associated Press - Saturday, October 4, 2014

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Not long ago, the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law was widely considered one of the nation’s weakest open records laws, a statute that provided only limited access - and even that had been whittled down by court precedent.

That was before 2008, when lawmakers and then-Gov. Ed Rendell enacted a top-to-bottom revision. Government records have since been presumed to be public outside of a list of exceptions, and the burden was shifted to the government to prove why something should not be disclosed.

Six years later, the law is being amended, and the state Senate voted 50-0 for the changes last week. But it’s far from clear that the changes will become law any time soon.

For one thing, the organization that represents Pennsylvania’s newspapers is opposed. The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association’s list of a dozen concerns included how the amendment addressed release of state workers’ home addresses, government contractor records, 911-related information and some of the bill’s procedural provisions.

Lawmakers have only five voting days before the November election, and House leaders are focusing on pension changes next week.



The chairman of the House committee where the bill was sent isn’t sure what will happen.

“We’re always hopeful that if you get a product over from the Senate, maybe it’ll address everything we’re looking for,” said House State Government Chairman Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler. “You can be hopeful, but it’s not always reality.”

The Senate-passed version would force more information about Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities into the open, although Penn State, Temple, Lincoln and the University of Pittsburgh still would not be fully subject to the Right-to-Know Law.

It would expressly permit the Office of Open Records, the Harrisburg agency that is the first line of appeal for state agencies that have denied a records request, to examine disputed records in secret to help determine if they should be released. The amendment also clarifies that the office is independent.

“The goal is to make it crystal clear that whatever is appropriated to the Office of Open Records is the Office of Open Records’,” said Erik Arneson, a Senate Republican spokesman.

The proposal would clamp down on public records requests from inmates, which constitute about 40 percent of the Office of Open Records’ work. Inmates would still be allowed their own records and documents related to their incarceration, however.

People who seek records for commercial purposes would be hit with higher fees, volunteer fire and rescue companies and elected tax collectors would not be covered by the law and only Pennsylvania residents would be allowed to make requests.

“I don’t think it is a particularly challenging process for any motivated out-of-state requester to find somebody in the state” to seek records on their behalf, Arneson said.

As for the home addresses of government workers, a topic that has arisen repeatedly in the past six years, the bill would give those employees two weeks’ notice if their address is about to be released, and a way to challenge that decision on personal safety grounds.

After an agency has turned down a request, the person seeking the records would get 20 days - five more than currently - to file an appeal from the date the denial was postmarked or emailed.

Requesters would no longer have to state why they think the denial was improper, eliminating the current standard that has resulted in hundreds of appeals being dismissed without the Office of Open Records ever getting to their merits.

“It was a very legalistic interpretation that, hopefully, we’ll be able to get rid of,” Arneson said.

The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association also warns the bill would become more difficult to find out who is delinquent on their sewer and water bills, and that agencies would be able to take three months to decide whether to release records under certain circumstances.

Gov. Tom Corbett considers the bill “a good start,” said his spokesman, Jay Pagni, but he believes it should be further amended so that it fully covers the Legislature. The current Right-to-Know Law has only limited application to the legislative branch of government.

If nothing gets passed by the end of November, the two-year legislative session will expire and lawmakers will have to start over in January.

___

Mark Scolforo covers state government for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at mscolforo@ap.org, or follow him on Twitter: @houseofbuddy.

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