Pennsylvania looks brighter under new open-records law

Pennsylvania is in for a bit more sunshine in government next year, thanks to an open-records law overhaul that is historic and much needed.

The General Assembly, in sending a sweeping reform bill to Gov. Ed Rendell last week, managed to finally address a law that’s 50 years old and has the state near the bottom in public access to government records.

This didn’t happen overnight. Legislators have been working on it for months, learning about the issues involved in improving access and debating them along the way.

The discussion alone was historic, as there was an openness in Harrisburg — finally — to make changes that many of us in and out of the media have sought for years.

To put it in perspective, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association in August 2006 listed these “must haves” for meaningful open-records reform in a campaign called Brighter Pennsylvania:

* An acknowledgment that records belong to the public* An improved definition of “public record” and a presumption of access* The burden of proof on an agency denying access* Broader definition of “agency” * An administrative appeal/Office of Access* Meaningful penalties

Senate Bill 1, the right-to know bill passed and signed into law last week, addresses all of these points and, most importantly, does acknowledge that government records belong to you. There are exceptions, of course, but largely this bill says you are entitled to know what your tax dollars are paying for and what actions are being taken by government agencies.

It also will set up a timetable for agencies to respond to records requests, a central office to handle disputes and stiffer penalties for agencies that violate the law.

This will take effect in January 2009, and between now and then the exceptions will be detailed and challenged.

In particular, there are concerns about the bill’s targeted approach to information from Penn State and the state-related universities. My view always is for openness, and it’s fair to raise these questions for perhaps future revisions to the law. But most importantly, this is a great step forward and no doubt will lead to more access to our government.

It’s all very meaningful to me, coming during my year as president of the Pennsylvania Society of Newspaper Editors. I became very familiar and involved in issues that I’ve discussed over my entire career in Pennsylvania newspapers, and it was encouraging to see legislators spend time learning about these concerns. It also was encouraging to see cooperation between the House and Senate to improve the bill rather than hold it hostage in a committee or a chamber.

House Speaker Dennis O’Brien, R-Philadelphia, set the groundwork for this by bringing people together and encouraging input and reform.

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, worked tirelessly at details in his House State Government Committee and in amendments to the bill that emerged from committee.

And Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, sponsored the bill and led the effort in the Senate, getting full attention on a subject that hadn’t been a priority previously.

Many more legislators worked to make these changes, with many citizens involved in the process, and the result is that we’re all going to be better informed.

The achievement wasn’t lost on Sen. Mike O’Pake, D-Berks, who has been in Harrisburg for 30 years.

“What this proves is when House and Senate, Democrat and Republican, get together and put their heads together instead of banging their heads against one another, anything is possible,” he said, as reported by The Associated Press. “We hope this bodes well for other major pieces of legislation.”

So do we, and perhaps with these changes we’ll be able to better track what’s happening in the Capitol and around Pennsylvania.

As always, please contact me with concerns you have about anything in the Centre Daily Times or online at www.centredaily.com.

Executive Editor Bob Heisse can be reached at bheisse@centredaily.com or 231-4640. His blog, “Back in Happy Valley,” is on the Web site.