By Eric Boehm │ PA Independent
HARRISBURG – They don’t need no stinkin’ transparency.
The heads of Pennsylvania’s four largest taxpayer-funded universities told members of the state Senate on Thursday they see no reason for their institutions to fall completely under Pennsylvania’s open records laws.
The four state-related schools – Penn State, Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln universities – have a special exemption in the state’s right-to-know law that allows them to dodge requests for records of employees’ salaries, vendor contracts and other spending information. Transparency advocates in Pennsylvania and nationally and criticized the loophole.
Mark Nordenberg, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, said the four schools have special circumstances and do not receive a high enough percentage of their annual spending from the state to count as state agencies, which would then have to comply with the law.
“I think we all believe in transparency,” Nordenberg said. “We all already are subject to a significant amount of disclosure.”
The four schools are receiving more than $500 million in taxpayer money this year. Individually, between 7 percent and 15 percent of the schools’ budgets are paid by taxpayers.
In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal at Penn State, lawmakers and members of the public have raised questions about whether the schools should have to comply more with the open records law as a means to check on how they use public funds.
Under current law, the schools must disclose the salaries of the 25 highest-paid employees and select other information annually.
State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, chairman of the Senate State Government Committee, said there are plans to revamp the open records law, and those changes would affect how the law applies to the state-related schools.
“Their argument that they are not state agencies is sound,” he said. “We only fund a small portion of their operations, but it is still a significant amount of taxpayer dollars.”
A hearing on the changes is planned for later in the spring, but no date has been finalized, according to Smucker.
It was clear Thursday where the heads of the schools stood on the issue.
Penn State President Rodney Erickson said the school is “fully committed to accounting to every public dollar,” but said he agreed with Nordenberg that the school’s should not be subject to the open records law.
Robert Jennings, president of Lincoln University, pointed out that his school has open and transparent board meetings and discloses information to the public when it decides to do so.
“We do provide information when it is requested, if it comes from a legitimate source,” Jennings said.
If the schools did not comply with the law, Wagner suggested lawmakers reduce their subsidies in the next year’s budget.
New Auditor General Eugene DePasquale shared that sentiment last year, when he was still a member of the state House, telling the college chiefs it was a “no-brainer” for them to comply with the law.
Legislation to bring the schools under the right-to-know law was introduced last year but never received a vote. The universities have argued that donor information, sensitive research data and trade secrets could be compromised if the schools are required to comply with the law.
On Thursday, Nordenberg said he preferred the current system; individuals can ask the school for information, but the schools have the final say.
“If it is flipped the other way, I think it will become more complicated to identify the exceptions,” he said.
Boehm can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.