Pennsylvania is on the verge of something remarkable. For the first time in many years, the state open records law, called the Right to Know Law, is close to being significantly improved.

Pennsylvania's current open records law is widely regarded as one of the worst in the country. In a 2002 survey by the Better Government Association, it ranked 48th of the 50 states. But that may be about to change. On Wednesday, Jan. 30, the state Senate passed, in a 50-0 vote, Senate Bill 1, which would significantly improve access to government records. This week, the House is expected to consider the bill.

What would a new law mean for the average citizen? It depends. If you care about government spending and accountability, it could mean a lot.

The bill fundamentally changes the structure of Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law. It begins with the presumption that state and local agency records are open for public inspection and places the burden on a government agency denying access. For the first time since the Right to Know Law was passed in 1957, it will include the General Assembly, and will give citizens the ability to appeal open records disputes to an administrative agency, the Office of Open Records, without the need to file a court action.

In August of 2006, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association launched Brighter Pennsylvania, a legislative initiative to improve Pennsylvania's access laws. As part of the initiative, the PNA identified the following items as "must-haves" for open records reform:

l ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ An acknowledgment that records belong to the public;

l ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ An improved definition of "public record" and a presumption of access;

l ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ The burden of proof on an agency denying access;

l ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ A broader definition of "agency;"

l ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ An administrative appeal/Office of Access; and

l ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ Meaningful penalties.

Senate Bill 1, P.N. 1721, contains these elements. It:

l ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ Expands the definition of public record;

l ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ Creates the presumption of access;

l ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ Brings the legislature under the scope of the law, and makes its financial and other records presumptively public;

l ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ Provides that the judiciary's financial records are presumptively public;

l ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ Expands the definition of agency;

l ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ Places the burden of denying access on the agency; and

l ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ ˆ Increases penalties for noncompliance.

In addition to these items, the bill makes community colleges subject to the law, shortens agency response times to five business days for all agencies, makes records in the possession of third-party contractors that relate to government functions public, requires state contract information to be available online in a searchable database, and requires state-affiliated universities to make financial information publicly available.

Is the bill perfect? Of course not. We remain concerned about a number of its exemptions, including one that would permit anonymous donations to agencies. Some have expressed concerns about the placement of the Office of Open Records within the Department of Community and Economic Development. We remain convinced, however, that the success of this office will depend upon its executive director and his or her staff - not on the agency in which it is housed. Others have raised concerns about whether home addresses of domestic violence victims will be protected. They will. Could the bill be improved? Yes. But does it advance the interests of Pennsylvania citizens? We believe it does.

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association supports Senate Bill 1, P.N. 1721, and urges its passage.

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