Wolf signs transparency bill

The governor allowed HB 2463 to become law without his signature

Gov. Tom Wolf announced he will let HB 2463 become law without his signature. The legislation, which passed the General Assembly unanimously, requires state agencies to respond to Right-to-Know Law requests during a disaster declaration. Wolf previously said he would veto the legislation. The governor offered the following statement on the bill:

“Since the introduction of House Bill 2463, my administration has expressed deep concerns with forcing commonwealth employees to physically come to an office to process records requests under dangerous conditions. We have gone above and beyond to provide information to the legislature and public throughout the pandemic, including the data that drive our decision making.

“Yesterday, the Office of Open Records provided some assurance that they will draft guidelines to keep the commonwealth’s dedicated public servants safe. While I am still very concerned about the ill-conceived and poorly drafted legislation as it pertains to protections for critical security and infrastructure during an emergency, I am going to err on the side of transparency, as I have done throughout my term, and let this bill become law.

“Because the legislation is so poorly drafted, I also am stating my understanding that it simply clarifies that various data and models related to a disaster declaration are public records, so long as those records are not exempt from release under the existing Right-to-Know Law, including exemptions necessary to protect the safety and security of state infrastructure and those related to the pre-deliberative process of state agencies and officials.

“To be clear, commonwealth agencies are processing records requests and have been doing so for months. Responses were sent on all pending or received record requests. In fact, as this bill made its way through the legislative process, offices had re-opened and requests were being processed long before this bill came to my desk. This bill is no more than a talking point for many in the General Assembly, and it is long past time for mere talking about government transparency; it is time for exemplifying it, in particular as we continue to address the pandemic.

“Over the past several months, Republicans in the General Assembly have tried to roll back my administration’s mitigation efforts to mirror those of Florida, Arizona and Texas. These actions would have resulted in more deaths and greater economic harm and at no point have they provided any data to justify their attempts. They are contrarian for contrarian’s sake.

“With the benefit of hindsight, their attempted actions have proven to be universally incorrect and have been repudiated by almost every public health expert in the country.

“Like most other legislative records, the rationale for their attempts to force the commonwealth to prematurely reopen and hinder our response to the pandemic remains elusive. In fact, for years, the majority of the legislature has exempted themselves from any meaningful right-to-know process, as the category of legislative privilege allows them to block the release of almost all information, including basic information such as correspondence and calendars, not to mention any emails that outline their often-flawed decision-making processes.

“Now, I am calling on them to apply the same basic transparency that they expect of the other branches of government to themselves. Legislation should be passed to make the Right-to-Know Law applicable to the General Assembly, and allow for the legislature to voluntarily provide information requested via the RTK law to media and other interested citizens just as they ask the other branches of government to do.

“Even with these suggested changes, more must be done to truly reform government for the better. We need to further enhance our election and campaign finance systems, and ban gifts to ensure the people of Pennsylvania, and not special interests, are the reason for every elected official’s actions.

“I am still worried that the provisions of HB 2463 will needlessly put commonwealth employees in possible danger retrieving records to meet an arbitrary timeline. This concern is heightened because some legislators, by example, have wantonly endangered their own employees by having them come in to work when telecommuting would be adequate, have tried to force workers throughout the state back to work without adequate protection, and have refused to follow basic public health advice such as wearing masks.

“Some members of the legislature have repeatedly said they do not take this virus seriously. In fact, the author of this legislation has appeared in the chamber almost exclusively mask-less around staff and colleagues. They have rallied the fringes of their movement to needlessly endanger the residents of Pennsylvania for the approval of President Trump.

“I will let this bill become law, but it is time for the Republican legislature to hold themselves accountable for their intentional lack of transparency, their failures throughout this pandemic, and their response that has repeatedly endangered employees and citizens in Pennsylvania.

“It’s time for accountability and reform, and that is what we should all expect and demand.”

Rep. Seth Grove (R-Dover), author of the bill, issued the following statement:

“For the past week or so, Gov. Tom Wolf has touted his reasons why he would veto House Bill 2463, all of which were debunked. At the same time, numerous stakeholders, such as newspapers, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, and members of the House and Senate vocally raised concerns on what a veto would mean for transparency in the Commonwealth. It would have meant the administration and state agencies under its umbrella could ignore valid questions from the public and the press.

“House Bill 2463 has a simple goal: To ensure the public has a route to hold its government accountable, even in times when a state of emergency declaration has been declared. A crisis is no reason for elected officials to ignore questions from the public.

“This bill becoming law could not have happened without the support of all those who raised their voices in defense of an open government and the freedom of the press. I am eternally grateful for the support this law received.”