(AP) House Bill 2463 is pretty simple. It would require state agencies to follow Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law during declared emergencies. Like the current coronavirus pandemic emergency.
The Right-to-Know Law guarantees public access to government records. The state legislature, which can agree on little more than the time of day, unanimously passed HB 2463 requiring compliance with the law during emergencies. Some state agencies had stopped processing public information requests during the first months of the COVID-19 emergency declaration -- and there’s still foot-dragging on disclosing records related to nursing home deaths and business closure waivers.
This unanimous bill faces a veto from Gov. Tom Wolf, which would be the first veto of a unanimously passed bill since 1978. Remember, this is about compliance with an existing law, not something new, which makes this a surprising issue for a standoff. The reasons given for objecting to the bill have been flimsy from the start. The administration’s objections fall under the general heading of “problematic and risky’’ -- for instance, they contend that having to comply with the law would risk public safety or patient privacy.
But these concerns are already addressed by the law. Melissa Melewsky, an attorney for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia, told PA Post the existing law makes numerous exceptions to prevent the release of the information that would create harm. They include: exemptions for trade secrets, confidential and proprietary information, individuals’ medical information, investigation exemptions, and exemptions related to safety and security of individuals, buildings, and critical infrastructure, she said.
Of course, emergencies are exactly when laws like Right-to-Know have their greatest value. Emergencies are the times that people most need to be fully informed and to understand why decisions are being made. Our guess is that Wolf’s really objecting to Right-to-Know compliance for the same reasons many government leaders have objected to it since meaningful Right-to-Know legislation was passed in 2008: fear of inconvenience and embarrassment from disclosure, or partisan self-interest.
Certainly, anyone can succumb to the pressures of self-interest, even a governor who promised transparency during his campaign and again during the coronavirus crisis. No doubt the motives of GOP legislators wanting to know more about Wolf’s handling of the coronavirus crisis aren’t pure. But times of crisis call for something bigger than partisanship: unqualified, no-holds barred, honest-to-God transparency. The kind of transparency that lets the chips fall where they may. That builds confidence in government for the people in Pennsylvania at a time when federal officials destroy such confidence daily in ways previously unimaginable.
But if you want to talk self-interest, vetoing HB 2463 would create bigger, more lasting disadvantages for Wolf in the long-term: It ultimately cedes the high road. It misses an easy opportunity to create political goodwill that Wolf can build on -- and that he will need as the pandemic continually presents new challenges. It suggests a lack of confidence. It wastes energy and political capital on an unnecessary fight. Arguments against openness are always feeble and are themselves transparent.
As a public official, you’re either for transparency or against it -- there’s no sometimes. The Right-to-Know law isn’t about the person currently in office and their option to do with it as they please. The Right to Know is a public right to question the government and get answers. Our right.
Harrisburg Patriot News/Pennlive.com