By Gary Joseph Wilson | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Jerry Sandusky was indicted for molesting children more than 500 days ago.
Since then the Pennsylvania General Assembly has voted to contribute $1.06 billion dollars in largely non-publicly accountable taxpayer money to state-related universities, including Penn State, where Sandusky was the longtime assistant coach for the football team.
Following the scandal that forever scarred the soul of Pennsylvania, it appeared the legislature had the momentum it needed to force state-relates universities; Penn State, Temple, Pittsburgh and Lincoln, to release records under the right-to-know act.
But that hasn’t happened yet.
“When they want funding they say they’re public, when they’re talking about right-to-know they say they’re private,” said Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester.
Last week, the Pennsylvania Senate unanimously voted to contribute more than $550 million to the four state-related universities. Dinniman used the occasion to urge lawmakers to apply the right-to-know law to the schools.
When asked why the General Assembly has not yet forced universities to comply with the law, Dinniman told PA Independent, “that’s the $64,000 question.”
Dinniman said it was time for there to be a “clear trail of where public money goes” but the schools were effectively resisting the enactment of the legislation by giving “101 reasons” why they shouldn’t have to follow the right-to-know law.
In February, Penn State President Rodney Erickson and leaders from the three other state-related universities appeared before the state Senate to plead their case against expanding right-to-know to their institutions.
Mark Nordenberg, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, said the schools were committed to transparency and “already are subject to a significant amount of disclosure.”
Individuals may request information and records from the universities, but the schools currently have complete autonomy in approving or denying requests.
Currently, schools are only required to release an annual list of their 25 highest paid employees and select other information from their tax returns.
Academic big wigs at the schools frequently cite donor information, trade secrets and sensitive research data as things that could be compromised by forcing schools to follow the right-to-know law.
Eric Epstein, a government transparency advocate with Rock the Capital, believes the state-related universities shouldn’t “hide” behind these claims because they haven’t earned the trust of the public.
Epstein said “you can’t mandate cooperation” between the public and the state-related universities, but there should be “one set of rules for all the players” receiving public funding.
Under Pennsylvania law, citizens have a presumptive right to obtain public records from most government agencies and the state’s public universities.
Unlike the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education such as Clarion University, the four state-related universities are not owned and operated by state government. But state government does provide them with funding, to the tune of 5 to 15 percent of their annual budgets.
Because of their semi-private status, Penn State, Temple, Lincoln and Pittsburgh are exempted from the right-to-know law.
Despite several false starts from lawmakers, nothing has been done to subject the schools to the right-to-know laws.
On Monday, the state House voted to approve the Senate-passed state-related university contributions with minimal discussion. The votes marked the second time the General Assembly has funded state-related universities without requiring additional transparency since the Sandusky atrocity.
House Republican Spokesperson Steve Miskin said the General Assembly hasn’t passed right-to-know reform “because legislation doesn’t always move swiftly.”
Months prior to the funding vote, Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, introduced a bill that would subject state-related universities to the same disclosure requirements followed by state universities.
“It is disturbing to think what we and the public could have known about the revelations at Penn State if the Right to Know Law had offered greater access to that institution’s records,” Benninghoff wrote in his official memo introducing the bill.
The House State Government Committee amended and approved the bill in April. The bill has since been tabled. Benninghoff could not be reached to comment on the bill’s fate and future in time for publication.
Despite bipartisan support, previous legislator attempts to bring transparency to the universities’ use of state funds have stumbled out of the starting blocks. Current Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, supported such action when he was a member of the legislature but was unable to accomplish any reform.
Auditor general spokeswoman Susan Woods was unsure of why the state legislature has seemingly been hesitant to act on transparency legislation, but that DePasquale “remains committed” to seeing the right-to-know law applied to state-related universities.
Woods added the office was “hopeful” the legislature would move on the reform soon.
By the end of Sandusky’s prison sentence, the legislature may have brought transparency to Penn State’s state funding. But in the interim, the state-related universities’ state funding is about as a transparent as the murky Delaware River.
Eric Boehm contributed to this report.
Gary Joseph Wilson can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @gjw34