Wolf lets GOP-authored open records bill lapse into law without his signature | Monday Morning Coffee

July 27, 2020 6:58 am

Gov. Tom Wolf signed two bills increasing police training and reforming police hiring Tuesday. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Good Monday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Waiting until the very last second, Gov. Tom Wolf has let a controversial government transparency bill lapse into law without his signature, ending, at least for now, the debate over one of the more polarizing aspects of the York County Democrat’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was no secret that Wolf opposed the bill, authored by Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, that would have required the governor — and his successors — to continue processing open records requests during a state of emergency. The bill won the unanimous approval of both the state House and Senate, as the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso earlier reported.

Wolf had sat on the bill for the constitutionally allowable 10 days, amid speculation of a looming gubernatorial veto, before blasting out a statement shortly after 7 p.m. on Sunday.

“My administration has expressed deep concerns with forcing commonwealth employees to physically come to an office to process records requests under dangerous conditions,” Wolf said in a lengthy statement released by his office. “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.

On Saturday, “the Office of Open Records provided some assurance that they will draft guidelines to keep the commonwealth’s dedicated public servants safe.” Wolf’s statement continues. “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.

But “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,” the statement reads.

Pa. House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Seth M. Grove, R-York (center) leads a Capitol news conference on bills aimed at curbing Medicaid fraud. Grove was joined by a bipartisan coalition including (from left in front) state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York; Rep. Matthew Bradford, D-Montgomery; state Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, and Rep. Wendi Thomas, R-Bucks. At Grove’s right is Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

In a statement released just before 9 p.m., Grove called the administration’s decision a win for the taxpayers.

“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 their concerns on what a veto would mean for transparency in the Commonwealth,” the statement reads, in part. “It would have meant the administration and state agencies under its umbrella could ignore valid questions from the public and the press.”

The bill, Grove continued, “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.

Wolf’s office stopped processing open records requests shortly after the Democrat’s office declared a state of emergency in March, arguing that it was shorthanded and didn’t want to compromise the safety of state workers by calling them into work to process those requests. Grove introduced his bill in April, even as Wolf’s office began processing those requests again.

The unanimous vote represented a rare rebuke from legislative Democrats, who are usually loathe to break with the administration on Republican-authored proposals.

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

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And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.