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The Investigator

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

February 6, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

The lobbying disclosure law in Pennsylvania leaves a lot to be desired, but heck, it's something. So we were surprised to learn one of the law's champions, Common Cause Pennsylvania, was recently fined $19,900 by the state Ethics Commission for ... failing to follow the law. Our friends at Billy Penn are also on Common Cause's case this morning over the director's questionable side job.

Top news from the Capitol includes a full recap of Gov. Tom Wolf's 2020 budget address, plus his plea to the GOP-controlled legislature to enact gun control. Also, people with late-stage cancer are about to get some relief from the state, while WITF reports another law to help those with mental illness isn't working.

Christopher Baxter, Spotlight PA

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"It doesn’t matter that the amounts we report are small — we are still obligated to file, and to file on time. We failed to do that, and we are very sorry.”

— Brian Cullin, the board chair of Common Cause Pennsylvania, which championed the state's 2006 lobbying disclosure law and then broke it

 TRANSPARENCY 

Poll shows wide support in Pa. for public access to government records. But the devil's in the details.

When a recent Franklin & Marshall College poll found that a majority of Pennsylvania voters support “few restrictions” on access to government records, my peers were quick to celebrate.

Access to government records like documents, datasets, even calendars and emails, often lead reporters to stories. 

I admit, I cheered, too. I know how important this access can be. 

Before I started at Spotlight PA, I was looking into a shady company. I’d heard some alarming anecdotes and wanted to dig deeper, so I fired off a few records requests. It took one week for reports to arrive in my inbox with information that was a boon to my reporting.

Then I moved to Pennsylvania.

The first records request I filed here, for consumer complaints, was promptly dismissed. They largely aren’t obtainable in the state. 

Even when the law is on my side, barriers to access pop up frequently. Access to government records here is so dire, in fact, that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press recently announced it’s sending a dedicated lawyer to fight for access on behalf of Pennsylvania journalists.

So, yes, last week’s poll result was welcome news. Of 628 registered voters, 79% agreed that “citizens should have the right to obtain any government record with few restrictions.” 

But as a journalist, I parse details, and when I read the other phrase that respondents were handed, I didn’t know what to make of the results. Of those polled, 19% selected the second option: “Citizens should have the right to obtain government records only in limited circumstances.” 

What do “few restrictions” and “limited circumstances” actually mean? Should the public be able to obtain “any” government record? What about privacy concerns and security risks?

Turns out, I’m not the only one asking.

“The question is, what are the limits?” said Erik Arneson, executive director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records. “The question is, what’s reasonable?”

These questions don’t have clear answers, but they won’t stop me from sending more records requests. 
 

Sara Simon, Spotlight PA

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 CAPITOL NOTEBOOK 

Wolf talks gun control during budget speech, LGBTQ supporters rally for protections, and more

» Yes, he went there: On Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf did something unusual for a budget speech — he asked lawmakers to pass gun-control proposals. They would: mandate universal background checks; allow judges to temporarily seize firearms from people in "red flag" situations; and strengthen reporting requirements for lost and stolen firearms. 

» Overheard at the Capitol: “Our lawmakers here in Pennsylvania and the justices on the Supreme Court need to take action to make sure what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone again," Shippensburg student Michael Bugbee said while rallying for LGBTQ protections

» Tick ... tock: Another census means the clock is ticking on a priority for anti-gerrymandering advocates. They are pressing lawmakers to act on two bills that would hand over the power of redrawing electoral maps to an independent commission, the Post-Gazette reported. But time is running out: The legislature has to act by this summer. 

» Spotlight on Spotlight PA: Rep. Seth Grove (R., York) didn't mince words after Spotlight PA revealed that a watchdog agency had purchased $160,000 worth of guns and ammo it can't actually use: "Pennsylvania has a reputation for corruption. It cannot be tolerated any longer." The editorial pages of The Intelligencer and the Lewistown Sentinel had equally harsh words for the inspector general's office.

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
» TRIBLIVE: Thousands of Census workers still needed in Western Pa.
» PA POST: Pa. jails are price-gouging on items like feminine products
» GOERIE: College advisory board wants "candid" discussion so it shuts out the public
» INQUIRER: What Pennsylvania can learn from Iowa's caucus disaster
» INQUIRER: How 'bout a horse trade? Tuition help could come from horse trust fund
» AP: Your legislature cost $362 million to run last year
» PENNLIVE: Police departments abandon $700,000 police records system
» MORNING CALL: Why are drug overdose deaths still rising in Berks County?
THE RIDDLER

Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.

Color me confused (Case No. 24): There are five buildings on a suburban street. The red house is made of red bricks, the yellow house is made of yellow bricks, the blue house is made of blue bricks and the orange house is made of orange bricks. What is the green house made of?
 
Stumped? Get a hint. Have a riddle? Send it to us.

Last week's answer: You light the match first.

Congrats to Victoria S., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who correctly answered: Jamie T., Doug H., Norm K., Claudia M., Lisa M., Deborah D., Annette I., Jeff W., Jeffrey F., William W., Jon N., Ted P., Jim S., and Michelle N.
» This week's Riddler hint: Let there be light.
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