The Lead

Wolf says he opposes open records bill, despite unanimous support

By: - July 16, 2020 3:28 pm

Governor Tom Wolf speaks about efforts to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage. Governor Tom Wolf is building on his commitment to help hardworking Pennsylvanians. Today, the governor joined legislators and workers to renew his call to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $12 an hour with a pathway to $15. Later this week, the governor’s plan to extend overtime pay eligibility to 82,000 more workers will be considered by the state’s rule-making board. Harrisburg, PA – January 28, 2019

*This story was updated at 3:20 pm July 17, 2020 with additional information.

Despite winning the support of all 253 members of the General Assembly, Gov. Tom Wolf said Wednesday he would not sign a bill requiring the state to process open records requests during a state of emergency.

During a press conference Wednesday, Wolf said the bill “had some flaws,” but did not elaborate on what they were.

“I am for transparency and I will stack my record of transparency against the members of the General Assembly any day of the week,” Wolf said.

The bill, which would prevent any governor from suspending or delaying open records requests indefinitely due to a state of emergency, passed the state Senate unanimously Wednesday.

The bill would also make all data, modeling, and the process for selecting the data used during a disaster a public record.

Pennsylvania’s right-to-know law makes government files, from the governor’s office to a local school board, available to the general public. But the General Assembly, while crafting the statite, exempted itself from numerous requirements. 

For example, while one could request the emails of a city councilperson, emails by a state representative or senator are mostly shielded from view. 

In an email Thursday night, Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said the bill made no allowances for the safety of state employees who might need to return access physical documents amid a disaster.

“In certain disaster emergencies, like a natural disaster or like the current pandemic, there may be no way for these dedicated public servants to safely access their offices at certain times,” Kensinger wrote.

She also claimed that, as written, the bill could reveal “problematic” information about critical infrastructure, private health information, and trade secrets, among other data.

Wolf first issued an emergency declaration for COVID-19 on March 6. Most state workers were ordered to work from home soon after.

Starting later that month, the Wolf administration said the shutdown prevented state offices   from fulfilling open records requests, such as those filed by media organizations for a list of business granted exemptions to open under public health decrees.

Citing shuttered offices, Wolf admin. says it can’t process news outlets’ requests for COVID-19 waivers

The exemption is in state law, transparency experts said, to allow for part-time agencies only open a few days a week to answer requests without missing deadlines.

In late April, following a month of pressure from business groups, Republican legislators, and the media, Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, introduced his bill to remove this exemption and force Wolf and any future governor to process the records requests during a state of emergency.

The House bill passed in early May. It was not taken up by the Senate until July.

In the interim, the Wolf administration has started answering records requests again.

Both the General Assembly and the state’s row offices, such as the attorney general and the auditor general, have been answering requests throughout the pandemic.

During the Wednesday press conference, Wolf also announced an order to preempt a potential second wave of the coronavirus in Pennsylvania. The order requires all who can to work remotely.

Wolf said he did not expect any potential state teleworking to impact records requests.

“I’m not sure open records are necessarily limited by teleworking,” Wolf said, despite the spring pause in requests. 

“To the extent you need to have specific concrete files, I think there are still going to be enough people working,” he added.

Gov. Tom Wolf ran as a champion of government transparency. The COVID-19 pandemic is putting that to the test

If Wolf does veto the bill, it is unclear what would happen. The House had previously tried and failed to override a Wolf veto of a business reopening bill in May.

Grove’s open records bill passed unanimously, without the partisan rancor of many other COVID-19-related proposals, but lawmakers are usually leery to vote against their own governor.

Wolf has never had a veto undone since he came into office in 2015, despite always splitting control of state government with the GOP-controlled Legislature.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.