Government transparency bill now law
(The Center Square)– Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf allowed a government transparency bill he once adamantlyopposedlapse into law Sunday evening without his signature.
In a lengthystatement, the administration minced few words. Wolf called House Bill 2463 “foolish” and “thoughtless.”
The bill passed unanimously with bipartisan support, but Wolf called it little more than a talking point for Republicans.
“I will let this bill become law, but it is time for the Republican legislature to hold themselves accountable for their intentional lack of transparency, their failures throughout this pandemic, and their response that has repeatedly endangered employees and citizens in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said. “It’s time for accountability and reform, and that is what we should all expect and demand.”
The legislation requires state agencies to fulfill Right to Know records requests during disaster declarations. Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, sponsored the bill last spring after the administration denied access to public records to media outlets and others seeking specific data about the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Transparency: Controversial or not?
Commonwealth Foundation Vice President Nathan Benefield said the measure shouldn’t have been controversial.
“After a week and a half of threats to veto, it is a relief to know that Gov. Wolf can be pressured into abiding the principle of transparency; a principle which he has claimed to champion,” Benefield said in a statement. “When put to the test during the statewide shutdown, Wolf abandoned the laws that guarantee transparency and accountability in state government, preferring instead to pull a curtain around his actions and delay publicity of his decisions. Without the bold actions of Rep. Seth Grove and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the General Assembly, Wolf would have likely taken the same actions to obscure his administration’s decision making in a future emergency.”
Wolfsaid he supports government transparency. But he said the legislation doesn’t protect employees who may be forced to enter state buildings during the pandemic.
He called the bill’s language “poorly drafted,” saying it could compel the release of sensitive documents typically exempt from the 2010 RTK law.
Besides, he said, state agencies began processing requests again months ago, so the bill does little to advance transparency– especially since the Legislature itself continues to be exempt from the law.
Wolf took issue with “legislative privilege,” which he said allows the legislature to “block almost all information” themselves.
That includes correspondence, calendars and emails outlining “their often-flawed decision-making process.” He said.
Grove said Sunday he and others– in the Legislature, at the Pennsylvania News Media Association and the American Civil Liberties Union– debunked all of the governor’s issues with the bill over the last 10 days, leaving Wolf with little standing to pull out his veto pen.
“It would have meant the administration and state agencies under its umbrella could ignore valid questions from the public and the press,” he said.
The Office of Open Records also assuaged some of the administration’s concerns about safety, Wolf said. Still, he worries the bill “will needlessly put commonwealth employees in possible danger retrieving records to meet an arbitrary timeline.”
Wolf cites ‘fringe elements’
He blames hishesitanceon fringe elements of the Republican Party, calling out Grove specifically. He accuses the Republican of “wantonly” endangering legislative staff by making them come into the Capitol instead of telecommuting.
“Some members of the legislature have repeatedly said they do not take this virus seriously,” he said. “In fact, the author of this legislation has appeared in the chamber almost exclusively mask-less around staff and colleagues.“
He accused Republicans if “rallying the fringes of their movement“ and needlessly endangerIng Pennsylvanians “for the approval of President Trump.”
In a statement, Grove did not respond to the governor’s criticism. Instead, he praised all the voices that lent support to his public campaign to save the bill from certain veto.
“House Bill 2463 has a simple goal,” he said.
That goal ensures the public has a route to hold its government accountable, even during a state of emergency declaration.
“A crisis is no reason for elected officials to ignore questions from the public,“ he said. “I am eternally grateful for the support this law received.”
Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania’s General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms.