Pennsylvania Lawmakers Want To Shield Reasons For Expenses

Feb 27, 2020

The Pennsylvania Legislature is concealing with whom lawmakers and staff met, and why, in records on how it spends its roughly $360 million annual budget, two news organizations reported Thursday.

Thousands of pages of financial records turned over in response to public records requests by The Caucus and Spotlight PA contained vague descriptions of expenses or redactions that made it impossible to see their purpose.

In defending their rationale for keeping the information secret, legislative lawyers in the nation’s largest full-time Legislature cited the speech and debate clause in the state Constitution, The Caucus and Spotlight PA reported.

The lawyers say that the clause protects lawmakers’ ability to speak and debate freely, and that revealing the information would “interfere with the Legislature’s independence."

But good-government advocates say the speech and debate clause was intended to allow lawmakers to speak freely in floor debate and other official proceedings.

“Seems like a huge stretch,” said David Cuillier, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Arizona and president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Lawmakers, he added, need “to buck up, have some backbone and be accountable."

The news organizations’ requests covered all of the Legislature’s expenses, except salaries and benefits, from 2017 through 2019.

The nearly 3,000 pages of records the House and Senate have released so far included information about staff travel, meals, lodging, conferences and professional training.

Dozens of redactions blacked out information about whom they and their staff spent money to meet with, and the purpose of those meetings.

For instance, four charges of $95.25 each for staff aides who stayed overnight in Pittsburgh blacked out wording that said who they met and on what sort of legislation. A $265.49 lodging and parking charge in January 2018 for a one-time top Senate aide concealed the kind of meetings he attended in Washington.

The Caucus and Spotlight PA are appealing the redactions.

Pennsylvania's Legislature has largely exempted itself from the state public records law, although financial records are among the few items that legislators are required to make public.

The Legislature has successfully invoked the speech and debate clause in the past to shield records such as correspondence about deliberations. But it has not routinely been used to block records detailing how and why the House and Senate spend taxpayer money.