By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
If the famous saying is true – that, like sausage, it is best not to see how laws are made – the Pennsylvania Legislature has done its part to shield taxpayers during this year’s rocky budget season.
GOP lawmakers in charge routinely hosted key committee meetings in hot, cramped rooms that couldn’t accommodate all those interested in watching. While crowds of observers and lobbyists were left in the hallway, craning to hear the action inside, those lucky enough to find a spot sweated it out or battled claustrophobia.
The rooms most often used — the state Senate’s Rules Room and the House Appropriations conference room — don’t have the camera feeds found in larger meeting rooms, meaning those at home couldn’t watch some of the most important budget proceedings online or on the Pennsylvania Cable Network, which often broadcasts legislative action.
House Democrats raised concerns, saying hosting highly attended meetings in small rooms doesn’t jibe with the spirit of open government and poses a safety hazard.
“We are lucky that nobody has passed out or worse, but it does put a great strain on the people in that room,” said Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny.
If not just a violation of the fire code, Patton believes the meetings could also run afoul of the states’ Sunshine Act, which requires General Assembly’s committee meetings be open to the public.
In these cases, the meetings were open — evident enough by the sheer volume of lobbyists who crowded around the lawmakers — but not everybody could get inside.
Local municipalities have run into legal problems under similar circumstances. For example, the borough council in Exeter, Pa., had to re-do a public meeting in 2010 after shutting out residents who wanted to attended a controversial meeting about a possible Walmart coming to town.
Melissa Melewsky, an attorney with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, wouldn’t go so far as to say the General Assembly’s committee meetings violated the Sunshine Act. But, she said, lawmakers should be “as open and accommodating as possible,” especially when considering issues that generate as much interest as the state budget.
While the law might not be interpreted to say that crowded meetings should be shut down and moved to larger rooms, maybe the Legislature should do that when possible, Melewsky said.
“As much public access as possible is ideal, whether that’s through a bigger room or televised access or both,” Melewsky said. “The important thing is that anyone who’s interested needs to have a method of access to that decision because once it’s over, it’s over, and the public has lost the opportunity to see what’s going on.”
The Legislature already built-in some perks for itself in the Sunshine Act. The law allows the General Assembly to close its caucus meetings and forgo the public comment required for other agencies.
Rules allow legislators to call instant committee meetings from the floor when in session, as was the case when the House Human Services Committee met to ship out a pension reform bill and when the House State Government Committee met to pass paycheck protection. Dermody called that a “sneak attack.”
But most of the contention this year has been on the use of small meeting areas.
Perhaps the most notable conflict over the practice occurred July 2, when the House Rules Committee met in the appropriations conference room to consider legislation that would allow a higher cigarette tax in Philadelphia to help fund education.
State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, complained about the cramped quarters, which he later described as “congested beyond any level of reason.” The committee chairman, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, responded that he’d shut down the meeting if there was concern, Frankel said.
Frankel dropped the matter.
“I wasn’t about to risk an important public policy issue at the expense of trying to address this other issue,” Frankel said, adding, “I think it’s inexplicable other than the only reason to have done that is to make it difficult for the press to observe what was taking place.”
When approached about the issue at the Capitol on Thursday, Turzai waved off a reporter and walked away.
The issue wasn’t relegated to the House Rules Committee. On the Senate side, the Appropriations Committee and Rules Committee sometimes meets in the small Senate Rules Room. While the Senate does not have as great of a stock of large meeting rooms such as the House, it does have a larger space — with a camera feed, too — about a five-minute or less walk away from the chamber.
Though smaller, the Rules Room is adjacent to the Senate.
“At budget time, when multiple meetings of the same committee are being held in a single day, it is convenient for both members and members of the public who are following Senate proceedings,” said Darren Smith, chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester.
State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, the Senate Appropriations chairman, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of the government reform group Common Cause Pennsylvania, said there were times when committee meetings would happen on a chamber’s floor, meaning citizens would have to rush from the gallery to attend. And that’s if they could get by the security guards who didn’t always realize those meetings were public.
While the Legislature has done better, there’s room for improvement, Kauffman said. With plenty of larger hearing rooms that offer video feeds for the public that cannot attend, the solution simply could be a five-minute walk for lawmakers, he said.
“I’m always stunned at how many people watch PCN and local cable media,” Kauffman said. “I think when we’re doing these kinds of issues, they should take the extra few minutes juts to go to a room that will accommodate the crowd.”
Staub can be reached at [email protected] Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.