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Pa. Senate deletes details in expense records

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The Investigator

Your guide to the Capitol & stories holding the powerful to account

March 5, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

Now you see it ... now you don't? That's what happened when The Caucus and Spotlight PA requested expense records from the Senate as part of an ongoing investigation into how the legislature spends the millions it gets from taxpayers each year. Instead of redacting spending information, officials edited it out, making it appear as though it never existed.

Also this week, state officials warn popular CBD products are largely unregulated. Plus, the Post-Gazette reports on another small municipality passing an LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance in the absence of action in Harrisburg. 

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA


"We are now in the anti-transparency Olympics.”

— Terry Mutchler, the first director of the state’s Office of Open Records, on the deletion of details from Senate expense records


How the legislature gave itself special privileges when writing Pa.'s open records law

When the legislature wrote Pennsylvania’s open records law in 2008, it was hailed as a win for the public, greatly expanding access to a wider array of government records.

Less noticed at the time was that lawmakers largely exempted themselves from having to reveal many records that other government agencies routinely have to make public.

Want access to a legislator’s emails? A log of who lawmakers meet with and why? Who they talked to on the phone? You’re out of luck.

Aside from voting calendars, bills, and public hearing minutes and transcripts, financial documents are among the few records the legislature is required to disclose.

But as The Caucus and Spotlight PA have recently discovered, lawmakers are trying to shield portions of those records as well.

The news organizations are fighting those redactions through the appeals process, one of the few options the public has when a government agency denies a records request, or there is disagreement over what’s blacked out.

But the legislature gave itself special privileges in that area, too: Unlike in the executive branch, lawyers for the House and Senate do not have to make their case to the state’s Office of Open Records, an independently run agency that is the first stop in deciding appeals.

Instead, the two chambers designate appeals officers from within their own ranks, which critics believe allows them to effectively act as their own judges in public records disputes.

If the public doesn’t like the decision of the legislature’s appeals officer, they have to sue in court.

The Caucus and Spotlight PA are in the early stages of the appeals process. It has been a long one — the first round of public records requests were filed in November of last year — and it is far from over.  

It could be months before all of the records are turned over. But we will continue taking a hard look at how the Pennsylvania legislature spends money. If you have tips or an idea for other records to pursue, contact me or send Spotlight PA a tip 

Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

Join Spotlight PA and our media partners on
March 20 in Pittsburgh for a conference on transparency and your right to know! Reserve your tickets today.


Work-zone cameras are coming, state system troubles persist, and more from the week

» Smile, work zone ahead: Starting next week, automated cameras will surveil drivers near some highway work zones across the state, PennLive reported. Transportation officials used data to choose where to place the vehicle-mounted cameras, noting that they record only when workers are present. 

» The cost of education: Dwindling enrollment at Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities will weigh on lawmakers as the next state budget is decided, according to PA Post. Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed a $13 million increase for the state system, but some say more than $500 million is needed to resolve underlying issues. 

» Overheard at the Capitol: “This is something that is going to take thoughtful due diligence,” Education Secretary Pedro Rivera told lawmakers of asbestos issues at schools across Pennsylvania. Rivera is backing Wolf’s proposal to make $1 billion available for abatement, though he noted that amount is just a start.

» No safe site: Lawmakers who represent Philadelphia once again voiced loud opposition to a supervised injection site in the city. “A day-care requires more scrutiny than this place,” state Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia) said. As the Inquirer reported, Williams is pushing a bill that would criminalize supervised injection sites that don't get local approval first. 

Cynthia Fernandez, Spotlight PA

Capitol Notebook by Spotlight PA provides updates on important news and notes from the halls of power in Harrisburg.
Can't-miss reads from this week
» SPOTLIGHT PA: State lab is now testing coronavirus samples
» AP: Lawsuit seeks to end counting inmates as residents of prison districts 
» AP: High court will review decision that opened window for some clergy abuse lawsuits
» THE ATLANTIC: Study contends Pa. may have seriously undercounted opioid deaths
» INQUIRER: Why Gov. Wolf's plan for universal pre-K may be tough to deliver
» LNP: Pa. doesn't monitor water quality in state's one million private wells

Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.

Disappearing act (Case No. 28): On an unusually warm day in March, a little boy went into his backyard and found a pipe, a scarf and three lumps of coal on the ground. None of the items were on the ground the day before, and no one had come or gone from the yard. How did they get there?
Stumped? Get a hint. Feeling smart? Challenge a friend

Last week's answer: The driver was driving around a rotary (or traffic circle or roundabout).

Congrats to Melanie B., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who correctly answered: Deborah R. and Scott L.
» This week's Riddler hint: "Knew the sun was hot that day."
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