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Pennsylvania grades high on national transparency report

By   /   January 30, 2013  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

WINNING: Pennsylvania is doing rather well in its effort to be more transparent, a recent ranking of states found.

HARRISBURG — Three cheers for transparency.

A national organization has recognized Pennsylvania for having one of the most transparent state governments in the country.

Sunshine Review, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing transparency and accountability in state and local governments, released its annual report card Tuesday. Pennsylvania was one of five states tied for the highest overall grade – a B – and got an A for state-level transparency.

Only California, Illinois, Maryland and Washington matched Pennsylvania’s marks.

The high grade for the Keystone State was due, in part, to the launch of a new website listing all state contracts, expenses and other uses of taxpayer funds – including pay for all state employees.

“Pennsylvania’s state website performed well, only missing information on government-sector lobbying,” said Michael Barnhart, president of Sunshine Review.

Good grades for Pennsylvania’s five largest city governments helped the state achieve the overall high rank, Barnhart said.

The new website is the most visible and interactive part of Pennsylvania’s recent climb toward improved transparency.

Gov. Tom Corbett called “PennWatch” a “historic leap forward” during a news conference in December.

Terry Muchler, director of the state’s Office of Open Records, also applauded the new website.

But there is always work to be done, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a government reform group.

He agreed that PennWatch was a “big step forward” but said loopholes in the state’s right-to-know laws should be closed.

One of those loopholes allows the four state-related universities – Penn State, Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln – to avoid scrutiny. Another allows the Legislature to keep from the public eye communications with lobbyists and constituents.

Kauffman has seen the state change quite a bit in the past decade. He said Pennsylvania had some of the worst transparency laws in the nation before 2006.

Since then, Pennsylvania has overhauled its open records law and passed a sunshine law requiring government officials at all levels to give residents access to the decision-making.

Last year, Corbett signed into law a reform that would require individuals offenders of the sunshine law pay the required fine – rather than allowing them to use a government account to do so.

After all, Kauffman said, if the officials are blocking the taxpayers from access, why should tax dollars be used for the fine?

There is still room for improvement regarding execution, Kauffman said.

“We might have good rules on the books, but it sometimes falls apart in practice,” he said.

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Contact Boehm at [email protected] and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.