Open Records Bill Approved by Senate – Sent Back to House for Concurrence

(HARRISBURG) – Senate Bill 1, legislation to strengthen Pennsylvania’s Open Records Law was approved unanimously by the Senate today, according to state Sen. Jake Corman (R-34).

Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Majority Leader Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R-9), changes current law so that all records from executive agencies and local agencies are presumed to be open unless they fall under a specific exception established in law.

“This change has been sought by advocates of open government for a long time,” said Sen. Corman. “Senate Bill 1 would now bring Pennsylvania in line with the majority of other states by putting the burden of proof on government agencies who want to deny access to a record.”

A key provision of SB 1 would require all state contracts, including contracts with the Legislature, to be posted online in a searchable database. This language, taken from Sen. Jake Corman’s Senate Bill 914, would offer the public unprecedented access to state spending decisions.

“The importance of giving the public the opportunity to search and review state contracts cannot be overestimated,” Sen. Pileggi said. “I commend Sen. Corman for his forward-thinking proposal and am pleased that it was incorporated into Senate Bill 1.”

Senate Bill 1, which returns to the House for concurrence in Senate amendments, makes dramatic changes in the records available from various government agencies.

* For executive agencies and local agencies, Senate Bill 1 reverses the presumption of access to records and puts the burden of proof on a government agency denying access to a record. This is the one change that many advocates of open government consider the most essential.

* Legislative records and financial records of the judiciary are subject to the same presumption and the same burden of proof.

* Senate Bill 1 provides a list of 29 plainly stated exceptions for executive agencies and local agencies. These exceptions include such things as criminal investigations, Social Security Numbers, personal financial information, and individual medical records.

* The Office of Open Records is nominally housed in the Department of Community and Economic Development so that DCED can help provide training to local and commonwealth agencies.

* Legislative agencies, including the Senate and the House, are required to provide access to 19 categories of records.

* Judicial agencies are required to provide financial records.

* The four state-related universities – Temple, Penn State, Pitt and Lincoln – are required to provide information from IRS Form 990, whether or not the university is required to file that form, along with a list of the highest 25 salaries for university employees.

Senate Bill 1 also makes many important changes to the process of obtaining public records in Pennsylvania:

* An independent Office of Open Records will hear appeals regarding access to records of commonwealth agencies and local agencies. The executive director of the Office of Open Records will be appointed by the governor to a six-year term, and will have control over the office’s budget and staffing decisions.

* The appeals process is improved, making it easier and less expensive for a citizen to challenge an agency’s decision not to release a record.

* It reduces the time period for response by a Commonwealth agency from 10 to 5 days.

* It increases financial penalties for noncompliance and makes it easier for plaintiffs to recover attorneys’ fees if an agency acts in bad faith.

* It requires the Office of Open Records to establish standard fees for photocopying records, and to create a uniform form that can be used to request records.

The rewrite of Pennsylvania’s Open Records Law is the latest government reform measure embraced by the Senate during the current legislative session. The Senate now posts more information than ever online, giving the public easy access to all roll call votes, the full text of Senate debates, and a live video feed of Senate floor activity.

The Senate has also approved legislation to increase penalties for violating the Sunshine Law, to eliminate lame-duck voting sessions, and to prohibit bonuses for state employees. All of those measures are awaiting consideration in the House.

Don Houser
Phone: 717 787-1377