(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf allowed a government transparency bill he once adamantly opposed lapse into law Sunday evening without his signature.
In a lengthy statement, the administration minced few words, admonishing House Bill 2463 as “foolish” and “thoughtless” and little more than a talking point for Republican majorities in the House and Senate, even though it was approved unanimously with bipartisan support.
“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,” Wolf said. “It’s time for accountability and reform, and that is what we should all expect and demand.”
The legislation requires state agencies to fulfill Right to Know records requests during disaster declarations. Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, sponsored the bill last spring after the administration denied access to public records to media outlets and others seeking specific data about the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Commonwealth Foundation Vice President Nathan Benefield said the measure shouldn't have been controversial.
"After a week and a half of threats to veto, it is a relief to know that Gov. Wolf can be pressured into abiding the principle of transparency – a principle which he has claimed to champion," Benefield said in a statement. "When put to the test during the statewide shutdown, Wolf abandoned the laws that guarantee transparency and accountability in state government, preferring instead to pull a curtain around his actions and delay publicity of his decisions. Without the bold actions of Rep. Seth Grove and his colleagues on both sides of the isle in the General Assembly, Wolf would have likely taken the same actions to obscure his administration's decision making in a future emergency."
Wolf – who said he supports government transparency – said the legislation afforded no protections for employees who may be forced to enter state buildings during the pandemic. He also worries the “poorly drafted” language will compel the release of sensitive documents typically exempt from the 2010 RTK law.
Besides, he said, state agencies began processing requests again months ago, so the bill does little to advance transparency – especially since the Legislature itself continues to be exempt from the law.
“They have created a category of legislative privilege allowing 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,” he said.
Grove said Sunday he and others – in the Legislature, at the Pennsylvania News Media Association and the American Civil Liberties Union – debunked all of the governor's issues with the bill over the last 10 days, leaving Wolf with little standing to pull out his veto pen.
“It would have meant the administration and state agencies under its umbrella could ignore valid questions from the public and the press,” he said.
The Office of Open Records also assuaged some of the administration’s concerns about safety, Wolf said, though he still worries the bill “will needlessly put commonwealth employees in possible danger retrieving records to meet an arbitrary timeline.”
He blames his hesitance on fringe elements of the Republican Party – and calls out Grove specifically – for “wantonly” endangering legislative staff by making them come into the Capitol when “telecommuting would be adequate.”
“Some members of the legislature have repeatedly said they do not take this virus seriously,” he said. “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.”
In a statement, Grove did not respond to the governor’s criticism, but rather praised all the voices that lent support to his public campaign to save the bill from certain veto.
“House Bill 2463 has a simple goal,” he said. “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,” he continued. “I am eternally grateful for the support this law received.”