Will Dems help override Gov. Wolf's RTK veto? GOP hopes for a 'yes'
Republican state legislators and the state's largest media lobbying organization are waiting to see if Democratic lawmakers will change their support for a public transparency bill after the Democratic governor vowed Thursday to veto it.
House Bill 2463, sponsored by Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, would amend the the Administrative Code of 1929 to require state agencies to continue responding to public record requests during a disaster declaration from the governor's office.
"That’s the big question," Grove said. "I don’t know how they’re gonna come down on it."
Gov. Tom Wolf's administration said Friday the governor intends to veto the bill at a later date.
Both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously passed the bill, which, if adopted, would be retroactive to March 6, when Wolf issued an emergency declaration in response to COVID-19.
The bill states that all public records requests received since March 6 should be treated as if they were submitted the day the amendment went into effect.
The York Dispatch first learned that Right-to-Know Law requests had been put on hold after filing a request for information about business waivers on March 25.
State agencies have since resumed processing requests, and Grove said he's not sure whether his Democratic colleagues will consider the bill necessary enough to support an override.
Holly Lubart, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said in an email Friday that the unanimous, bipartisan support for HB 2463 makes clear that the public is demanding transparency from the state government.
"While the Wolf Administration has started to process Right to Know Law responses again, this legislation is critical to ensure that information continues to be released to the media and the public," Lubart said.
A two-thirds majority is required in both chambers to override the governor's veto.
If Republicans were to vote along party lines, they would need six Democrats in the Senate and 27 Democrats in the House to join them.
Because the bill originated in the House, the veto override process would have to be initiated there, said Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township.
Phillips-Hill said there's still an opportunity for Wolf to change his mind, but that if the governor does go through with a veto, she hopes the House will take up an override vote.
"This really doesn’t have to do with who’s governor now or who’s governor in the future," she said. "What this is saying is that during an emergency, we need more, not less, transparency."
One of Wolf's objections to the bill is a fear that the legislation would require the disclosure of sensitive information.
Kevin Hensil, deputy press secretary for the governor, said the bill would require the "problematic and risky disclosure of information" dealing with everything from critical infrastructure and trade secrets to confidential health information.
But the Right-to-Know Law already provides ample exemptions to protect exactly that sort of information, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
"The fact that there's an emergency declaration doesn’t change anything about the exemptions to the Right-to-Know Law," she said.
Government should be as transparent as possible during a disaster declaration, Melewsky said, because the public depends on it for accurate and timely information about how state officials are responding to the emergency, how they're keeping the public safe and whether the policies need to be changed.
Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, the only Democratic legislator representing York County in the General Assembly, could not be reached for comment Friday.