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Editorial | Open-Records Law

On Harrisburg's to-do list

So close, yet so far.

In spite of themselves, Pennsylvania legislators almost completed a new open-records law that would move the state from among the worst to among the best.

But reform doesn't come easy in Harrisburg. Especially when it comes to shining more light on the sausage factory.

Rather than end the year on a high note, legislators broke for the holidays without accomplishing much in 2007.

Before adjourning, the House did approve unanimously a bill that would greatly enhance Pennsylvania's now pathetic public "right-to-know" law.

This bill is much better than the current law. It's also a big improvement over some of the dreadful proposals that floated around the Capitol in recent weeks.

The Senate and House still need to agree on a final version when legislators return in January. They should ensure several important features remain in the measure.

First, the burden to prove why a document should remain secret needs to be on the government. Current law puts the onus on the public.

The new law should open General Assembly records, including elected officials' e-mail. Legislators have resisted exposing their own records to sunlight but it's now in the House bill. Exemptions for a narrow range of security and privacy matters are appropriate.

Oversight and appeals of the bill should remain under the state Ethics Commission, a less political arm of government. The original Senate bill gave oversight to the state Department of Community and Economic Development, a cozier prospect for government officials.

Costs to obtain records should be minimal. State and local governments shouldn't discourage requests by charging exorbitant fees.

Despite the recent improvements, aspects of the legislation still need to be fixed.

For example, lobbyists could be exempt from record requests under an overly broad section that protects legislators' constituents from invasions of privacy. Taxpayers should be able to better watch the influence peddlers.

Enforcement must also be beefed up. The House unfortunately rejected a "three strikes" provision that could have punished elected officials and government bureaucrats who repeatedly stymie citizens' access to public records.

And a provision should be scuttled that exempts birthdates from disclosure. Legislators cite concerns about identity theft. But there are already many public documents containing this basic information, and it's a standard piece of data for people - including journalists - to verify someone's identity.

State lawmakers are close to implementing real reform to a basic tenet of our democracy. With some tweaks, Pennsylvania could move from the backroom to the sunroom when it comes to letting the public see how the public's business is conducted.