Pennsylvania residents would be able to register to vote online, and have quicker access to information about who funds their state legislator - as well as who spends money to influence policy-making in the Capitol - under a trio of bills passed unanimously Wednesday in the Senate.
It's all in the name of government transparency and efficiency in a state that has made a big push over the last decade to be more, well, open when it comes to matters of open records.
Under the online voter registration bill, sponsored by Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster), Pennsylvania voters would be able to register to vote online through a system developed by the Department of State. As it stands now, more than 15 other states give their residents the option to register to vote online.
"The idea is to make it easier to register to vote and to increase participation in voting," said Smucker in a statement. "This will also modernize the registration process and cut costs for counties."
Under a separate bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), all campaign finance reports filed with the Department of State would have to be submitted electronically. According to Pileggi's office, only about 35 percent of reports are filed electronically now, which can lead to delays in posting the information online for voters and others to view.
Pileggi's bill would also require any candidate committee or political action committee which raises or spends $10,000 or more in a calendar year to file additional reports, and fees for late filing would be increased from a maximum of $250 to a maximum of $500.
"While there will always be money in politics, we cannot allow the draw of significant dollars to diminish the public trust," said Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Philadelphia). "This gets us closer to the calls for campaign finance reform we have heard across the state."
Yet another bill, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), would also force lobbyists to report expenditures electronically (many now do so on paper). And the bill would require the Department of State to post the information on its public website within a week of receiving it.
The trio of bills now heads to the House of Representatives. It was not immediately clear whether Republicans who control that chamber support the measures.
Before 2006, Pennsylvania ranked near the bottom when it came to open records and other transparency laws. Then the legislature passed the state's current Right-to-Know law. Though far from perfect, good government advocates say, it still signaled a sea-change in Pennsylvania's approach to providing access to public records.
And just recently, the state launched a new website, called PennWATCH (www.pennwatch.pa.gov) that lists all state contracts and other taxpayer-funded expenditures, including salaries for all state employees.