5 ways the Pa. Legislature can improve transparency almost overnight

Bruce Siwy
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau
  • A Democratic lawmaker says Pa. needs a "ratepayer bill of rights."
  • Reform activists with MarchOnHarrisburg are applauding a proposed gift ban for legislators, public employees and candidates for office.
  • A GOP senator says destroying public records should be a criminal offense.
  • "Fair Chance" legislation would require all taxpayer-funded positions to be posted online.
  • Another legislator seeks new transparency rules for municipal authorities.

Harrisburg lawmakers can trigger more transparency and accountability in Pennsylvania governments of all levels as they return to the Capitol this session.

Proposals from both sides of the aisle present concrete opportunities for commonwealth residents to become better informed about the governing bodies, utility providers and municipal authorities impacting their communities. Here are five examples of what some state officials are suggesting:

Ratepayer bill of rights

State Rep. Christina Sappey (D-Chester) has proposed a "Water and Wastewater Ratepayer Bill of Rights" that would, in part, force utility providers to share more information with the public.

"Concern has been raised by my constituents regarding the process when municipal water and wastewater authorities are sold and acquired by public utilities," Sappey wrote in her co-sponsorship memo. "They feel they are given little to no consideration in the process, and I agree. Residential water customers deserve to be heard and to be able to provide direct input on these matters."

This ratepayer bill of rights would:

  • Require voter referendums to approve water and wastewater utility acquisitions.
  • Call for utility providers to give prior notice of potential rate increases and information on how to participate in the decision process.
  • Mandate utilities to publish an annual report including average residential amounts billed, a measure aimed at preventing them from inflating service costs.

According to Sappey, this was introduced last session as House Bill 144. Co-sponsors included seven fellow Democrats and a since-retired Republican.

Gift restrictions

A soft version of the "gift ban" sought by reform advocates has found renewed bipartisan support.

State Reps. Jared Solomon (D-Philadelphia) and Paul Schemel (R-Franklin) say they want to amend Title 65 to restrict gifts to public officers, public employees and candidates for office. They say they're seeking co-sponsors who share their belief in a "duty to serve our constituents and maintain their trust."

State Rep. Paul Schemel speaks at a town hall in Waynesboro on Feb. 22.

Their bill, in part, seeks to:

  • Bar public officials, employees and candidates from accepting cash gifts of any amount.
  • Prohibit them from accepting any gift of fair market value or aggregate cost of more than $50 from any one person in a calendar year.
  • Forbid them from accepting transportation, hospitality and lodging of an aggregated cost of $500 from any individual during a calendar year.
  • Expand the definition of "lobbyist" to include employees of registered lobbyists.
  • Require individuals to report gifts - meeting certain thresholds - to be recorded on their publicly available Statement of Financial Interests.

MarchOnHarrisburg Executive Director Michael Pollack — whose nonpartisan organization has rallied for these kinds of changes at the Capitol over the past few years — said he supports this measure and will work to advocate on its behalf.

Activists drape a banner saying "We don't trust you ... Pass the gift ban" inside the Capitol in Harrisburg.

Emboldened:'We're going after the system': Why Pa. activists see Capitol reform opportunities in '22.

Destruction of RTK documents a criminal offense

Another Pennsylvania lawmaker is seeking stiff penalties for public officials and employees who willfully violate the commonwealth's open records law.

Republican state Sen. Cris Dush said he plans to re-introduce Senate Bill 1206, formerly co-sponsored by fellow GOP Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill and Judy Ward. This measure would make the alteration or destruction of documents subject to Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law a third-degree felony.

Current law, Dush said, mentions no criminal offense for these sorts of acts.

"The Right-to-Know (RTK) law is an important check on public officials to hold them accountable for their actions regarding matters of public concern. The law is entirely thwarted, however, when officials and their staff or other individuals destroy or alter records which have been requested under the law, and which the public has the right to examine," he wrote.

A file photo of state Sen. Cris Dush (R-Jefferson).

'Fair Chance' legislation

Referencing Gov. Josh Shapiro's executive order opening thousands of state jobs to applicants without college degrees, state Rep. Frank Burns (D-Cambria) announced he'll be reintroducing his "Fair Chance" legislation.

According to Burns, his bill would require all state jobs to be posted publicly to the commonwealth's employment site. He said many Pennsylvanians are left unaware of career openings that are filled internally.

"Every single taxpayer-funded position should be public and be posted. Let the best candidate get the job," he said.

According to Burns, the bill is intended to cut down on nepotism and favoritism in state government.

At left, state Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) speaks at a press conference outside of the Cambria County Courthouse as state Rep. Frank Burns (D-Cambria) looks on.

Transparency in government authorities

State Rep. Robert Merski (D-Erie), meanwhile, wants more openness from political subdivisions.

In a memorandum titled "Transparency in Government Authorities," outlined a series of potential requirements for municipal authorities and similar entities. He's calling for each to have its own website that lists:

  • The name of every board member, including the length and expiration date of their terms.
  • Email addresses to contact each board member
  • The name of the municipality, or name and office of the person who appointed each board member.
  • A link to the website of the municipality or government entity that created the authority.
State Rep. Bob Merski, of Erie, D-2nd Dist., is sworn in to his third term during a ceremony in Harrisburg on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.

"When conducting governmental business, transparency is vital. It is the obligation of government entities to share information with citizens. This allows for better decision-making and accountability," Merski wrote in his memorandum seeking co-sponsors.

"But too often, governmental authorities slip under the radar because they do not publicize the makeup of their boards. This lack of transparency is a disservice to the people who are subject to the decisions made by an authority."

Members of the Pennsylvania House and Senate are expected to reconvene Feb. 21 and Feb. 27, respectively.

Bruce Siwy is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Pennsylvania state capital bureau. He can be reached at bsiwy@gannett.com or on Twitter at @BruceSiwy.