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April 22, 2013 | By | Posted in Legislature

PA House committee shuts transparency loophole for Penn State, other universities

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – A much-maligned loophole in Pennsylvania’s Open Records Law may soon be closed.

The House State Government Committee approved a bill Monday afternoon to end the right-to-know exceptions for Pennsylvania’s four so-called “state-related” universities – Penn State, Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln.  The bill moves to the full House for a vote that could come as soon as Wednesday.

Under current law, all state and local government agencies – including the 14 state-owned universities that are part of the State System of Higher Education – are required to respond to right-to-know requests.  Only the four state-related universities, which received more than $514 million in state taxpayer funds this year, are exempted.

OPENING UP OLD MAIN: Penn State and the other three state-related universities would have to comply with right-to-know requests under a bill approved by the House State Government Committee on Monday.

OPENING UP OLD MAIN: Penn State and the other three state-related universities would have to comply with right-to-know requests under a bill approved by the House State Government Committee on Monday.

State Rep. John McGinnis, R-Blair, a professor of finance and economics at Penn State’s branch campus in Altoona, said the schools should either comply with the Open Records Law or become wholly private institutions.

“I think it is incumbent upon the state-related universities, if they want to accept state tax dollars, that they be accountable to the taxpayers,” McGinnis said.

The four schools get between 5 percent and 15 percent of their annual budgets from the state, which they have argued is not enough to qualify as a state agency.  They have also expressed concerns about how the right-to-know law would handle sensitive information like records on private donors and research data.

State Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, minority chairman of the committee, picked up that line of argument on Monday.

He said the four universities have had more autonomy because they are mostly privately-funded institutions.  The 14 schools in the State System of Higher Education, by comparison, are nearly entirely funded by the state, to the tune of $412 million this year.

Currently, the schools are required to release an annual list of their 25 highest paid employees and select other information from their tax returns.

At a hearing with the state Senate in February, Penn State President Rodney Erickson said the school is “fully committed to accounting to every public dollar,” but said he did not believe the right-to-know exemption should be lifted.  The heads of the three other schools agreed.

THE PRICE OF TRANSPARENCY: The four state-related universities got more than $500 million from the state this year.

THE PRICE OF TRANSPARENCY: The four state-related universities got more than $500 million from the state this year.

But the fact remains that the four state-related schools get more than $514 million from state taxpayers each year, and the right-to-know loophole has been criticized as one of the worst in the nation by pro-transparency groups like Sunshine Review.

Former Auditor General Jack Wagner also recommended bringing the schools under the right-to-know law, following his review of the school’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal last year.

On Monday, state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, chairman of the House Finance Committee and the sponsor of the bill, said the changes should be made to eliminate the grey area where the four state schools currently reside.

“To the average citizen, this seems to make a lot of sense,” he said “You’re either in or you’re not.”

The committee approved the bill with a vote of 17-6, with all six “nays” coming from Democratic members of the panel.

If the bill becomes law, the four schools would have to hire or appoint right-to-know officers to handle requests.  Personnel data and material like emails between students and professors would be exempted because they are not covered by the state right-to-know law.

This past week, Penn State sent a missive to lawmakers urging them to oppose the bill, which was scheduled to be heard in committee on Wednesday but was moved up to Monday at the last minute.

Some Democrats questioned why legislation dealing with transparency was handled in a previously-unannounced committee meeting on Monday afternoon.

“I’m not against transparency,” said state Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, who voted against the bill. “What I’m against is having something rammed down my throat.”

Republicans responded that the meeting was held in accordance with state sunshine laws, since it was called from the floor of the state House during Monday’s session.

Boehm can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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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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