Public Records Legislation Clears State Senate Committee
Penn State and the other three state-related universities are a step closer to being required to make records public regarding contracts and salaries after bipartisan legislation passed the state Senate’s Government Committee on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 444 would require the four schools to create “searchable, sortable and downloadable databases on their freely accessible public websites,” according to a press release from Sen. Lloyd Smucker’s (R-13) office. It would also require state-related universities to post information about contracts worth $5,000 or more on the state’s online contract database. Penn State, Temple and Pitt would be required to report their top 200 employee salaries, while Lincoln would have to report the top 25 salaries, as Lincoln is a university with less than 2,500 employees. Penn State is currently only required to disclose its top 25 salaries and very little of anything else. The university has attempted to deflect any effort in recent years to be more transparent with its budget as it relates to Right-to-Know.
“State-relateds are going to have to produce more material than we’ve scene in literally the last couple of hundred years,” said Office of Open Records Executive Director Terry Mutchler. “For the first time, you’re going to see a wealth of information not thought of before.”
The bill is an amendment to Pennsylvania’s state-related universities’ standing under the state’s Right-to-Know law, which mandates that public commonwealth organizations cannot deny access to public records unless otherwise illegal. But because Penn State is classified as state-related and not a state-owned school, it only needs to submit an annual report to Harrisburg regarding the aforementioned information. The public release is typically too confusing and abbreviated for meaningful general consumption.
“If Penn State was worried about having to release its Nike contract, this makes it clear that that will have to be posted online,” Mutchler said. “…This is a short-leash situation.”
Mutchler said she believes the bill will pass when it is voted on by the end of the year. She expects that, by January, the state-related schools will have their public record information posted online.
After the Sandusky scandal, Penn State has faced more pressure to make records public, especially from some vocal information-seekers like Ryan Bagwell. The Right-to-Know Law, passed in 2008, was revisited in November 2013, resulting in today’s decision. The bill now heads to the state senate floor.
“This is an important step in providing greater transparency and accountability in how significant public funds are being spent,” said Senator Matt Smith (D-37), the Democratic Chairman of the State Government Committee, in a press release of the bill primarily sponsored by Senator Dominic Pileggi (R-9). “This was a collaborative bipartisan effort to ensure that state tax dollars are best serving students of the commonwealth.”
Any effort to make Penn State’s budget more transparent is welcomed by tuition payers, especially considering the recent study that puts Penn State as the second most unequal university in the country when comparing executive payment to student debt.