HARRISBURG - House Speaker Dennis O'Brien told a gathering of newspaper editors yesterday that he favors opening more government records to public scrutiny and extending the state Right-to-Know Law to cover the legislature.
"My style is going to be to encourage openness across the board," O'Brien told about 75 people at a luncheon opening the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association's two-day government-affairs conference.
The new speaker, a Philadelphia Republican, has appointed a special panel to examine potential government reforms in the aftermath of a political firestorm ignited by the short-lived legislative pay raise of 2005. He said he supports changing the state's Right-to-Know Law to include a presumption that all government records, except specific ones, are open to the public. The present law guarantees access only to certain categories of records.
"There has to be a respect for privacy, there has to be a respect for ongoing police investigations" and similar situations, O'Brien said of prospective exceptions.
O'Brien said he also would support removing the legislature's present exemption from the Right-to-Know Law. He promised to meet with Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), who said last week that Senate Republicans are backing a plan to extend the law to cover legislative spending that is expected to reach $341 million this year.
While House and Senate officials have disclosed some information about legislative spending, they are under no legal obligation to do so and they often impose restrictions, such as barring the material from being photocopied.
Gov. Rendell, a Democrat who just began his second four-year term, also has called for overhauling the Right-to-Know Law, but has not spelled out a proposal.
O'Brien, the first speaker elected from the minority party in at least a century, was picked after Democrats won a 102-101 majority but neither Democratic leader Bill DeWeese of Greene County nor former Speaker John Perzel (R., Phila.) was able to muster enough support.
One of O'Brien's first actions as speaker was to create the 24-member bipartisan Commission on Legislative Reform. The panel is reviewing potential changes in the rules that govern how the House operates and is expected to recommend changes by mid-March.
Once that task is completed, the commission is expected to hold hearings across the state on broader reform proposals that are likely to include restrictions on campaign financing, changes in the Right-to-Know Law, and term limits for legislators.
O'Brien said he hopes future speakers will follow his lead and air ideas for reform at the beginning of every two-year legislative session.
"Everybody has a different style," he said. "I'm just saying I hope the next speaker will embrace this process or something that resembles this."