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October 9, 2012 | By | Posted in Legislature

Sandusky ignites need for transparency, pension reforms, but they must wait

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

With only three days remaining in the session, it appears Old Main will remain exempt from the Pennsylvania Open Records Law until at least next year.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s judicial system has brought some closure to the Penn State child molestation scandal with Jerry Sandusky being given a de facto life sentence Tuesday morning

But the Legislature has been eerily silent on providing closure to two other issues that emerged from this horror at Penn State University — much-needed reforms to the state’s Open Records law and state pensions.

Since Sandusky’s crimes erupted in the media nearly a year ago, a few lawmakers have presented bills, but they have gone nowhere. The future of these proposals sits before a Legislature that, for some reason, is hesitant to act.

And with only three days remaining in the session, action on them is increasingly unlikely.

“Time is definitely short, and I’m getting disappointed by it,” said state Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, on Tuesday.

DePasquale is the lead sponsor of House Bill 2051, which has been sitting in the House State Government Committee since December. It would amend the Open Records law to remove the exemption for the state-related universities.

DePasquale said his staff has prepared amendments that could be offered to any bill concerning the Open Records law if one comes up on the House floor during the final week of legislative session for 2012, which begins on Monday.

A similar measure, Senate Bill 1377, sponsored by state Sen. John Blake, D-Lackawanna, has been sitting in the Senate State Government Committee since January.

Blake said Tuesday that he hoped the bill would come up for a vote this year, but was prepared to reintroduce it in January.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, said Tuesday that much time and effort, including numerous public hearings, have been spent this session to develop changes to the Open Records law.

Given the crush of agreed-upon bills to be dealt with in the final days of the session, “we believe it makes better sense to work on a comprehensive amendment to the law next year,” Arneson wrote in an email.

The four state-related universities are Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Tempe University and Lincoln UniversityThey receive state tax dollars but are mostly privately funded and operate without direct state oversight.

Under federal IRS guidelines, these four universities are required to disclose only the salaries of their 25 highest paid employees.

Lisa Powers, director of public information for Penn State, said Tuesday that the current law acknowledges the difference between a research university and other public institutions.

“We understand the interest in expanding our participating in the open records process, and we continue to cooperate with legislators as they consider how to best accomplish that goal,” she wrote in an email to PA Independent.

In the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal, Penn State did set up a website to voluntarily disclose the legal costs connected to the case. As of Tuesday, that total exceeded $20 million.

When the state’s right-to-know law was crafted in 2008, those four schools successfully lobbied to remain outside the law, citing concerns about donor information and the possibility that intellectual property and research could be made public.

After the Sandusky scandal broke, some lawmakers called for no additional tax dollars to be given to the university until it complied with the Open Records law, and a report called Pennsylvania’s state universities the least transparent in the nation.

Instead, Penn State got $227 million in June as part of the new budget — the exact same amount as the year before.

In July, Auditor General Jack Wagner called on the Legislature to make transparency reforms for the state-related universities a top priority when lawmakers returned here in September.

Instead, none of the bills have even moved out of committee.

When it comes to rewriting the right-to-know law to include the state-related universities, Pennsylvania Open Records Officer Terry Mutchler said it is a complicated process that may keep any changes from being made this year.

Changes to how the privately run but state-funded universities qualify under the law could indirectly affect other similar arrangements — including hospitals that get some state dollars and the University of Pennsylvania, which gets about $28 million annually for its veterinary school, she said.

“I believe that it is more important to do it right, rather than quick,” she said.

The Legislature also seems to be taking a pass on the opportunity to prevent future convicted felons from continuing to collect their benefits from jail.

Under current law, Sandusky will retain his annual $59,000 pension, because state law only revokes pension benefits, if a public official is convicted of a crime related to his public office.

State Rep. Fred Keller, R-Union, has introduced a bill to change that — House Bill 2469 would remove pensions from any beneficiaries who are convicted of a felony or violent crime — but it is still awaiting a final vote in the state House, before it can move to the state Senate.

More narrowly tailored bills await a vote in the state Senate.

State Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, has proposed a measure to remove pensions for anyone convicted of sexual crimes, and state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, proposed revoking pensions for those convicted of possessing or selling child pornography.

With the session coming to an end, these needed reforms must rely on the perseverance of lawmakers who want to redress these wrongs in the next gathering of the Legislature.

Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for breaking state political news.

 

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Eric Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent. He can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com or at (717) 350-0963.

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