HARRISBURG - The fits-and-starts process of overhauling Pennsylvania's open records law took a step forward yesterday as the House made a host of mostly minor revisions to a version approved in the Senate.
The main amendment, sponsored by Rep. Tim Mahoney (D., Fayette), would provide greater access to records of the legislature but prevent disclosure of birth dates and phone numbers in public records.
In a procedural move, Mahoney's amendment was split. The bulk of it passed unanimously and the other portion, which delayed full implementation until 2009, was approved, 109-93.
The votes were in preparation for a final vote in the House, which could be taken as soon as today.
In a major departure from the Senate version, the House voted, 147-55, to place within the state Ethics Commission a "Pennsylvania Public Records Office" that would field most appeals from people who have been denied them.
The sponsor, Rep. Tom Tangretti (D., Westmoreland), said the Ethics Commission was better positioned to avoid conflicts in appeals involving the executive branch. The Senate version would place an Open Records Clearinghouse within the Department of Economic Development.
The House also voted, 141-60, to ban government agencies from charging for the time it takes them to determine whether a record is public, for redacting certain information, or for government workers' time spent making copies. A Republican-led attempt to reconsider that vote failed.
The House also voted to require a public accounting of how much money in state grants is distributed to each of the 253 legislative districts, force additional disclosure by the Gaming Control Board, mandate the release of publicly paid polls conducted by the General Assembly, and allow local governments to set their own fees for providing records.
The House and Senate bills would radically change the 50-year-old Right-to-Know Law, widely regarded as one of the nation's weakest.
Both versions would overturn the underlying assumption of the law by declaring that all records are public beyond a list of exceptions - a change that advocates of greater public access to government records and information consider crucial.