State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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Lawmakers chew on changes to open records law

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Oct 21, 2013 8:17 PM

Proposed revisions to the state's open records law appear to be in need of more work. State Senate lawmakers discussed a plan to address the surging number of records requests from prison inmates, with less-than-glowing feedback from the state's foremost authority on the law.

State prisoners are among the most frequent filers when it comes to requesting documents under the state's open records law. The number of requests has risen steadily since 2009. Proposed legislation would address the issue by limiting what records prison inmates can request. But Terry Mutchler, executive director of the state's Office of Open Records doesn't think that will actually reduce the number of requests, or streamline the evaluation process.

She said even with that proposed change, inmates would still be allowed to ask - and therefore, gum up the system tasked with responding to their queries.

"A way to correct it might be, and if you ask for records outside of this, there has to be a form letter or something, so that it just cuts off the process," Mutchler told lawmakers on the Senate's State Government Committee.

A raft of changes has been proposed to update the 2008 Right-to-Know law. Lawmakers are also wrestling with how to expand the law to apply to the four state-related universities - Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln - which are largely exempt from the measure. The schools argue their special treatment should continue.

"The inclusion of Lincoln as a state agency under the Right-to-Know law would impose a substantial administrative workload and cost while providing little additional substantive information as to how state funding is spent," said Valerie Harrison, general counsel for Lincoln University.

Mutchler suggested that she's seen other states expand their transparency laws to cover universities, and the schools have proven quite adept at dealing with records requests.

"These institutions have, in some cases, up to 90,000 students, right? And so the admissions process alone has to be mind-numbing. And if you can get your head around that," Mutchler said, "there's got to be a way to, if the legislature does choose to cover them, to make it work."

Interest in broadening the open records law was prompted by the Jerry Sandusky child abuse case at Penn State. Many lawmakers have voiced interest in expanding the law so that campus police records, in particular, are presumed public documents, as well as other functions of the schools. The four universities together receive more than $500 million from the state.

Published in State House Sound Bites

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