'It's huge': GOP sponsor celebrates Gov. Tom Wolf not vetoing RTK bill

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Rep. Seth Grove makes a fired-up response to Governor Wolf calling local officials cowards as members of the General Assembly from York and Adams counties hold a rally at Gene Latta Ford in Hanover to discuss the need to reopen the local economy by allowing people to safely and responsibly return to work. 
Tuesday, May 12, 2020. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

State Democratic lawmakers gave a nod of approval Monday to Gov. Tom Wolf's decision to allow a pro-transparency bill to become law at midnight, while Republicans took a victory lap.

Wolf late Sunday dropped his plans to veto a bill that will require state agencies to respond to Right-to-Know Law requests during emergency declarations. It became law first thing Monday without his signature.

"It's huge," said Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, who authored the bill. "... The types of non-answers from the administration have been geared toward data. And during an emergency like this, I think you should side on more transparency."

More:Wolf backs down after veto threat, Grove's bill to become law

More:Coronavirus pandemic: Here's what York County's data looks like

Grove's bill will require agencies to fulfill and respond to Right-to-Know Law requests — including during emergency declarations such as the one earlier this year that shuttered state offices.

The bill was in response to the governor's decision in March to stop processing and responding to information requests amid office closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It wasn't until June that state agencies resumed the process.

House Democratic Caucus spokesperson Bill Patton said the caucus understood Wolf's decision to halt processing requests, but the new law makes sense going forward because state agencies have developed adequate work-from-home measures.

“Generally, we welcome the governor’s decision to let this open records measure become law,” Patton said. "But it really just codifies what’s already happening.”

The measure had passed both chambers of the Legislature with unanimous support. 

For weeks, the governor had vowed to veto the legislation due to concerns of protecting private information and employee safety. The bill's proponents argued the law's exemptions were sufficient.

It wasn't until a trip to the Lancaster Health Center on Friday that Wolf indicated he might allow it to become law.

FILE - In this Dec. 29, 2015 file photo, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks with members of the media at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. Wolf is attacking local elected officials making plans to reopen in defiance of his shutdown orders as cowards deserting the pandemic battlefield. Wolf threatened Monday, May 11, 2020 to block aid to rebellious counties in an escalating political fight over his administration's handling of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Come Sunday evening, Wolf said he wouldn't veto the bill after the Office of Open Records said it would draft guidelines for processing information requests during emergencies — something already required by the bill.

Dating back to March, the office had already advised agencies to still respond to requests, at the bare minimum prioritizing inquires related to the pandemic.

“While I am still very concerned about the ill-conceived and poorly drafted legislation as it pertains to protections for critical security and infrastructure during an emergency, I am going to err on the side of transparency, as I have done throughout my term, and let this bill become law,” Wolf said in a statement late Sunday.

Wolf also used his statement to accuse the GOP of actively trying to roll back COVID-19 mitigation efforts, saying it has "rallied the fringes of their movement to needlessly endanger the residents of Pennsylvania for the approval of President Donald Trump."

Grove said the language seemed "petty," and that the governor was using his platform to air frustrations as the parties continue to butt heads over how to navigate  the COVID-19 pandemic.

Republican efforts to undermine Wolf's actions throughout the pandemic have generally failed. 

Melissa Melewsky, legal counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the bill's passage was "certainly a win for public access."

But it will also hopefully kick-start more reform for the 2009 law, she said, as it still remains riddled with issues that need to be addressed by the legislative branch.

The York Dispatch is a PNA member. 

Both the media advocacy organization and Erik Arneson, executive director of the state Office of Open Records, have said the law's language was ill-prepared to function during a large-scale pandemic.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.