An annual transparency report card released late last month by Sunshine Review declared Pennsylvania to have one of the most transparent state governments in the country. The high mark from the nonprofit dedicated to increasing accountability in state and local governments is no small feat, given Pennsylvania’s previous transparency laws.
Yes, what Pennsylvania is currently being praised for was once a glaring weakness in our fair state’s bureaucracy. The Pennsylvania Right to Know Act, also known as the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law, is a series of laws designed to guarantee that the public has access to public records of governmental bodies in Pennsylvania. It’s been around since 1998, but the first 10 years of its existence were mired by the presence of loopholes that rendered its good intentions irrelevant.
Prior to 2008, the law presumed that government records were not public unless someone who wanted the documents could prove otherwise. But under the new law passed by state legislature and signed by then Gov. Ed Rendell, the presumption was flipped. Government agencies now have the burden to establish why a record should not be released.
“No longer should any state-related university be able to play the public and private game to its advantage.”
The law begins with the basis that all records held by commonwealth agencies, local agencies, judicial agencies and legislative agencies are publicly available. Nevertheless, 30 categories of records are still exempt from disclosure.
Among these exemptions are certain universities – Temple included – that fall under the definition of “state-related institution,” which is explicitly not included as one of the “commonwealth agencies” subject to the law. Due to the fact that Temple and the other three universities – Lincoln University, Penn State and University of Pittsburgh – are both publicly and privately funded, they are not required to release any documents, school records or correspondences between officials to the public. Instead, they are required to submit an annual report to the government detailing tax information and disclosing the salaries of the 25 highest paid employees as well as all officers and directors.
But under proposed amendments to the current law, that privilege of privacy would cease to be for these universities.
During the last session of the General Assembly, two lawmakers – Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, and Sen. John Blake, D-Lackawanna County – introduced legislation that would require the four state-related universities to comply with all parts of Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Act.
To many, the proposals may seem timed to fit the Sandusky scandal, especially given the calls from lawmakers to provide future taxpayer dollars to Penn State only if the school submitted to the current law. But to DePasquale, the exemption for schools in the Right to Know Law has been misguided from the start. The fact that Penn State has used its exemption from the law as cause not to release the documents makes the amendment timely, he said.
Blake also said that his interest predates Sandusky’s indictment. Instead, he expressed concern on the basis of how much money in state tax dollars the universities received each year. In the past year alone, the four state-related schools received more than $500 million.
Yet despite taking in hundreds of millions of dollars from the state each year, the funding is still not enough for the schools to be considered public, which ultimately begs the question of whether their internal records should be made public.
In 2007, the legislature agreed with former Penn State President Graham Spanier that disclosing the university’s relationship with donors, corporate funders and outside vendors would put Penn State at a competitive disadvantage to other large universities with which it competes.
But that is simply not true.
The legislature could exempt donors as well as ensure the privacy of certain proprietary information and research in order to keep universities competitive with one another. With these and other safeguards in place, there is no reason why the four state-related universities couldn’t comply with the Right to Know Act.
To be clear, I – like most open-records advocates – acknowledge that had these changes been in place, there still would have been little to stop the abuses committed by Sandusky.
I am grateful, however, for the attention it has brought to increasing the transparency in major institutions – from public to private and everything state-related in between.
No longer should any state-related university be able to play the public and private game to its advantage. Again in the case of Penn State, it is simply not fair for Spanier to argue that salary information be kept private, when nearly 7,000 Penn State employees – including Sandusky – participate in the State Employees’ Retirement System, a public scheme.
Schools like Ohio State and the University of California – which are similar in nature to Temple or Penn State – do not enjoy the same blanket protection that is afforded by Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Act. In fact, many colleges and universities across the country operate just fine being subject to open-record laws.
I think Temple would too.
Bri Bosak can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @bribosak.