Pa. rules panel’s secret meeting did not violate Sunshine Act, court holds
PENNSYLVANIA — The state House Rules Committee did not violate the Sunshine Act by voting in a private, unannounced session to increase daily expense allowances for House members, the Commonwealth Court ruled in late December.
The vote, which took place at an April 21 committee meeting, boosted per diems from $88 to $110 for legislators while in Harrisburg. The House voted on the resolution in general session in March, authorizing the Rules Committee to execute the resolution. Common Cause filed the lawsuit against the members of the Rules Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg in May, objecting to the “secret meeting” and asking the court to declare the increase in the per diem allowance invalid.
The court ruled in favor of the legislators, finding that the narrower definition of General Assembly meetings constricts the state Sunshine Law’s broad definition of “meeting,” which potentially encompasses a larger number of General Assembly activities.
The meeting of the Rules Committee was not one of the three types of General Assembly meetings specifically covered by the Sunshine Act: where bills are considered, where testimony is taken, or general sessions of the entire House.
In this case, the committee was not considering a bill but a resolution, the court said, so the Sunshine Act did not apply. Resolutions are a mechanism for carrying out the business of one chamber of the legislature used in situation where bills are inappropriate.
Even if the meeting did fall within the general definitions of the act, the court said, the revision of the expense guidelines was not “official action” within the scope of the act, but was instead, a ministerial action, executing a resolution of the House of Representatives.
(Common Cause v. Itkin; Media Counsel: Samuel E. Klein, Philadelphia)