ROBERT SWIFT: Capitol Matters: Promoting transparency in state government
HARRISBURG - A bill to require state and local officials to file their annual financial disclosure statements electronically was introduced by Sen. Lisa Baker this week as the annual filing deadline for these disclosures arrived.
The legislation would require the state Ethics Commission to create a more accessible format on its website to post these statements which provide some information about income, investments, debts and receipt of any gifts and hospitality valued above set monetary thresholds for thousands of individuals.
The commission would be required under the bill to sort the statements by name, year and office and link any amended statements to the original one and provide an e-mail notification option for individuals who want to be alerted to new filings.
The ethics commission currently posts statements on its website even though not required to do so under state law.
But Ms. Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp., said she has received complaints from constituents and others about the difficulty and inconvenience of searching through them.
The current system lists statements by alphabetical groupings, but there can be hundreds of statements dating over a period of years under even one letter.
"These financial disclosure statements are important documents for the public interest, constituting a significant guard against conflicts on the part of decision-makers and those who seek to fill such positions," added Ms. Baker. "This step applies the spirit of the Open Records law to this substantial body of information."
Certain state and local government employees and political candidates are required to file statements too. Ms. Baker's bill would extend this requirement to leaders of state and county political parties.
Ms. Baker's bill is being touted by Senate Republican leaders as part of an initiative to promote transparency in state government.
The Senate last month approved bills sponsored by two leaders to require lobbyists to register and report expenditures electronically with the Department of State as part of the lobbyist disclosure law and candidates to file campaign finance reports electronically with the department's elections bureau.
President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-25, Jefferson County, and Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-9, Chester, said the bills if enacted will enable information to be made public more quickly, accurately and at less cost.
"In the past, it has often taken months after lobbyist disclosure documents were completed and filed before the information was posted on the department's website," said Mr. Scarnati.
These transparency bills should make public information more accessible and save money because they will eliminate the need for data entry clerks in those areas, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. The problem is that oversight agencies like the ethics commission and department of state have been dramatically underfunded in state budgets in recent years, he added.
"These agencies still lack the sufficient funding and sufficient staff to do their essential government oversight work," said Mr. Kauffman.
Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed state budget flat-funds the ethics commission and provides a $2 million boost to the department of state.