The Pennsylvania House on Tuesday unanimously approved legislation to give the state Treasurer the power to withhold payment on contracts that haven’t been posted on a Treasury website for public viewing.
It’s a transparency problem first reported by The Caucus almost four years ago when an informal audit by the news organization revealed missing contracts and others that were heavily redacted.
In some cases, state agencies had posted far fewer than expected, including the state attorney general’s office, which had posted seven but when queried the agency came up with 14 more; a spokesman at the time blamed an “oversight” for why the contracts had not been added to the Treasurer’s database.
The bill passed Tuesday gives Treasury “some teeth” to make it work, said Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, the legislation’s sponsor.
“Transparency is fundamental to good government, and I support efforts to strengthen the contracts e-Library,” said Treasurer Stacy Garrity. “I worked with Rep. Grove on House Bill 2485 and believe that it will be a great step forward.”
The 2008 Right to Know Law required agencies to post contracts of $5,000 or more on a Treasury website accessible to the public. It was hailed as a giant step toward transparency. But there was at least one problem: A Treasury spokesman said in 2019 that the office didn’t have the authority to withhold payments to agencies or governments that failed to comply.
It was a great tool, but “it was broken,” First Amendment lawyer Terry Mutchler, the first head of the Office of Open Records, told The Caucus at the time.
The bill is “a lynchpin to ensure state agencies are following the law,” said Grove. He is hopeful the Senate will pass the bill and that the governor will sign it “to better hold agencies accountable for spending the people’s money.”
“If state agencies aren’t willing to say how (they are) spending public money we must have a mechanism to require them to do so,” Grove said.
The legislation requires agencies to submit contracts of $10,000 for public display — raising the threshold originally contained in the 2008 Right to Know Law. Grove said he agreed to double the minimum contract value at the request of the Department of General Services, an agency under Gov. Tom Wolf.