Legislators in Harrisburg can take an important step tomorrow to strengthen Pennsylvania's open-records law, one of the weakest in the nation.

A state House panel will review a bill that would give residents more clout when seeking information on everything from zoning decisions to expense reports of public officials.

Current state law has the issue backwards. It places the burden on citizens to prove why any government record should be open for public inspection.

A bill from Rep. Tim Mahoney (D., Fayette) would shift the burden onto state and local agencies to explain why certain records should be kept secret.

The measure contains other important features. It would cover the legislature, which is currently exempt. It would create an independent office to handle requests for state records and appeals of denials. It would increase the fines for willful violations from $300 to $1,000.

House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) say strengthening the open-records law is a priority.

But there is ample skepticism about how much openness lawmakers really want. Just last month, legislative leaders refused to disclose how $360 million in the legislators' "walking-around money" slush fund was being spent in their home districts.

That's not peanuts; it's taxpayers' money they're hiding.

How enthusiastically lawmakers treat Mahoney's bill at tomorrow's public hearing will indicate whether they are interested in approving a strong law in the fall.

Mahoney is the only freshman legislator on the bipartisan reform commission created by House Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.). Beefing up the open-records law is one of its top recommendations.

A troubling sign came Friday from Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.), chair of the state government committee, who said she had many concerns about the "complexities" of the issue. She said there was a "disinclination" among her colleagues to create an independent office to oversee open-records requests.

Anyone sharing Joseph's reluctance hasn't faced the same roadblocks to information that ordinary Pennsylvanians have.

Josephs also raised issues of privacy, such as medical records and personal details about an institution's charitable donors.

It's an important concern. It's also addressed in Mahoney's bill, which creates 24 categories of exemptions, including medical records, employee disciplinary records, records that would threaten public safety, records sealed by court order, and most e-mail. This wide range of protections shouldn't be expanded.

Josephs does agree that the law should be changed to presume that most records are open. Her committee should give this proposal a thorough vetting to prepare it for adoption.