Planned changes to Right to Know law stir worry

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HARRISBURG — Updates to the state’s Right to Know law, including more disclosure requirements for state-related universities such as Pitt and Penn State and curbing the rights of prison inmates to request some information, could be in the works when legislators return to Harrisburg in the fall.

One major proposed change to the law would concern prison inmates, who have been high-volume filers of Right to Know requests, something legislators didn’t anticipate when they passed the law in 2008.

In 2013, inmates accounted for 40 percent of all appeals to the state’s Office of Open Records, the quasi-judicial agency that enforces and oversees the Right to Know law. The Department of Corrections had the most Right to Know appeals of any state agency, more than 600 in 2013.

Senate Bill 444 would limit inmate’s requests to 11 specific records, such as their housing, educational and disciplinary records.

The American Civil Liberties Union cautions against limiting prisoners rights.

Another potential major change to the law, which a Senate committee vote approved in June, would expand the Right to Know law’s application to the four state-related universities: Penn State University, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University.

The schools would be required to create searchable, sortable and downloadable databases on their websites with extensive budget, revenue and expenditure data. The universities would also have to post information about contracts of $5,000 or more on Pennsylvania’s online contract database, and most of the universities would be required to report the top 200 employee salaries.

The 2008 Right to Know law was considered a major victory for open government advocates in Pennsylvania, as it established a presumption of openness, meaning every record of an agency was presumed to be public and the government agency bears the burden to prove why the record should not be public.

“The new law has been an overwhelming success by any measure, but there is always a need to look and see how it can be improved. That’s the goal of this bill,” said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, the law’s author. Mr. Arneson said the goal is to have the Senate vote on the bill when legislators return to the Capitol in September then send it to the House and onto the governor before the end of the year.

Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair, who has championed the open records cause in the House, said he hopes the bill can be passed this fall and signed into law, though he noted it will be up against a tight deadline, with a limited number of legislative session days in an election year.

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, the arch-conservative representative who is chairman of the House state government committee, which would handle the bill, could not be reached Friday.

If the bill’s prospects are unclear, the same is true of Terry Mutchler, the executive director of the Office of Open Records. Her appointment term expired in April, and it’s not clear if Gov. Tom Corbett will reappoint her.

The governor hasn’t made a determination yet, said Lynn Lawson, a spokeswoman for Mr. Corbett.

This week, two top Senators — Senate President Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Mr. Pileggi — took the unusual step of publicly calling for Ms. Mutchler to keep her post as the state’s top open records official.

Kate Giammarise: 717-787-4254 or or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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