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House OKs open-records bill, heads home

Now the Senate must reconcile its version of the bill with the House's after the holiday break.

HARRISBURG - Efforts to overhaul Pennsylvania's open-records law advanced another step yesterday as the state House of Representatives unanimously passed its version of a bill intended to make a wider assortment of records available to the public.

But more work lies ahead for lawmakers to come up with a measure to send to Gov. Rendell.

The Senate must decide whether to accept a number of mostly minor changes the House made to the Senate's open-records bill, which passed in November. The House passed its version 191-0 without debate on the legislature's last session day before the holiday.

The House bill would delay full implementation until 2009; locate the office to mediate access disputes in the State Ethics Commission rather than the Department of Community and Economic Development; and ban agencies from charging for research, redaction and copying time.

It would also provide greater access to legislative records, but prevent disclosure of birth dates and phone numbers in public records.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said yesterday that the open-records bill is his top priority. He said the Senate should be ready to take action in the first week or two after it returns to Harrisburg on Jan. 14.

"We need to go through [the bill] carefully," Pileggi said. "The initial read is that there are some pieces that don't fit together well."

If the Senate does not accept the House's version, it could make additional revisions and send it back to the House, or vote to reject the House version, setting the stage for a House-Senate conference committee.

Rendell declined to comment on the House's changes, saying he had not had an opportunity to review them.

"I think both the Senate and the House versions advance the ball, but they have to work that out themselves," Rendell said.

Both versions would radically change the 50-year-old Right-to-Know Law, widely regarded as one of the nation's weakest freedom-of-information laws.

Each bill would reverse the current law's underlying assumption by declaring that all records of the state's executive branch and local governments are public beyond a list of exceptions - a fundamental change favored by advocates of greater public access to government records and information.

They also would expand the law to include Pennsylvania's college-loan agency; community colleges; the four state-related universities; and financial records of the legislative and judicial branches.

In court disputes over whether a record should be public, the House bill would place the burden of proof on the government agency - instead of the other way around.