By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
The four biggest taxpayer-funded universities in Pennsylvania continue to push back against proposed legislation that would give taxpayers to the right to know how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year.
Legislation awaiting a vote in the Senate State Government Committee would overhaul several parts of the state’s Open Records Law, the first major rewrite of the law since 2008. As currently written, the bill would make university police forces subject to the law but would not require any additional disclosure from the universities that received a combined $514 million in tax dollars this year.
Lawyers for the state-related schools — Penn State, Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln universities — told the committee last week they oppose efforts to bring transparency to the schools’ spending because they have concerns ranging from the cost of answering right-to-know requests to privacy issues like the disclosure of faculty salaries.
“The university is already financially strained and imposing additional regulations on the university would be an unfunded mandate,” said Valerie Harrison, legal counsel for Lincoln University. “We do not have the administrative personnel to take on more.”
Lincoln University got $11 million from state taxpayers this year, the smallest share afforded to the four schools, but seemingly more than enough to hire the necessary personnel to handle right-to-know requests.
Lawyers for the schools repeated concerns about donors’ private information and proprietary research becoming subject to the Open Records Law, if the schools were forced to accept a higher level of transparency.
But Terry Mutchler, executive director of the state Office of Open Records, the government agency that oversees the right-to-know process, said those fears were unfounded: that type of information is already protected under the right-to-know law.
“The cost of not having access to a right-to-know law is much greater than the cost associated with the law,” Mutchler said. “There is a direct correlation between corruption and poor right-to-know laws.”
After last week’s hearing, lawmakers said work on the bill would continue. The Legislature will return to session Tuesday, and Senate State Government Committee chairman Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, said he was hopeful the bill would get a committee vote before the end of the year.
Whenever that does occur, Smucker said the bill will increase transparency at the state-related schools as one part of several changes to the Open Records Law.
“There will be additional requirements in terms of the openness for the state related universities,” Smucker told PA Independent on Friday.
The extent of those additional reporting requirements is still being worked out behind-closed-doors.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, who sponsored the bill, believes the schools’ police forces should be covered by the Open Records Law in the same way that all over police forces in the state are, but he maintains there is a difference between the state-related schools and other state agencies, according to Erik Arneson, Pileggi’s spokesperson.
“Sen. Pileggi believes that state-related universities are not government agencies and should not be treated as such,” Arneson said. “The level of public disclosure by state-related universities, however, can and should be substantially improved.”
The state-related schools are a black eye for Pennsylvania’s otherwise praiseworthy levels of governmental openness, according to pro-transparency groups like Sunshine Review.
Legislation awaiting action in the state House would bring the state-related schools under the same provisions of the right-to-know law as the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education schools. That group of 14 schools gets a larger chunk of its funding from state taxpayers and is directly operated by a branch of the state government, unlike the state-related schools which maintain their own, independent governing bodies.
Last year, PASSHE schools got a collective $412 million from the state.
“Both types of institutions are supported by taxpayer dollars,” Benninghoff wrote in a memo to fellow lawmakers. “Thus, I do not understand why the standard that applies to Millersville, Shippensburg, Indiana or West Chester universities (four of the PASSHE schools) should not apply to Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln.”
The bill has been voted out of committee in the state House, but was “laid on the table” — legislative parlance for a kind of limbo where bills can be stuck for an indefinite period of time — in June and has remained there ever since.
Boehm can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.