Pennsylvania legislature considers bill to limit public records exemption for public universities

PENNSYLVANIA — The Pennsylvania Senate is considering a bill that would require four public universities to disclose more under the state’s public records law.

The four “state-related” universities — Pennsylvania State University, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University — each receive state money as a portion of their budget and are currently only required to disclose some records.

The provision to require the universities to disclose more was added as an amendment this week to proposed legislation that would revise other parts of the records law. The amendment was unanimously passed in the State Government Committee on Wednesday.

While the amendment would increase the number of records the universities must disclose, it is worded far more narrowly than previous efforts to repeal the public-records exemption that enables Penn State and other colleges to avoid responding to open-records requests. Those broader bills have failed after lobbying by university officials.

Under the proposal, the four universities’ police departments would be defined as “local agencies” and would be required to disclose records the same as any municipal police department.

The bill also expands salary information the universities must disclose: Pitt, Penn State and Temple University would have to report the highest 200 salaries paid to employees, instead of the highest 25 salaries, as the law requires currently. Lincoln University still only has to report the highest 25 salaries because the institution has fewer than 2,500 employees.

In addition, all public meeting minutes of state-related universities must be available in print and online for at least 20 years. The four universities must also create “searchable, sortable and downloadable databases” online that detail “extensive budget, revenue and expenditure data; the number of employees and aggregated, non-personal employee data; and the number of students and aggregated, personal student data.”

Under the records law currently, the four universities are required to disclose only IRS tax forms, administrative salaries, the highest 25 salaries of employees and to keep a copy of the annual report for at least seven years in print and online. Some disclose more records voluntarily, as Penn State did with certain records related to the Jerry Sandusky investigation.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi introduced the bill. Erik Arneson, Pileggi’s spokesman, said that things have changed since 2008, when the law was last revised to expand public access to records from colleges and universities.

“It really gets to the level of taxpayer support that goes to the four universities,” Arneson said. “And the need to make it easy for taxpayers to review how their funds are being spent. The new Right-to-Know Law has done an incredible job of that for state agencies and local agencies. It’s time to expand it relating to the state-related universities.”

Delaware is the only other state with this type of state-related university exemption in their public records law.

Arneson said the universities are “sort of in-between” because they only receive some, not all, of their budget from the state, which was why the exemption originally passed.

“That’s why the decision was made to put them in a separate chapter,” he said. “We did feel that it was appropriate to have it apply in a different way. Obviously now we’re proposing a big expansion of that.”

Since the Sandusky investigation, Pennsylvania’s legislature has considered legislation to end or curtail the exemption on multiple occasions, and some of the universities have lobbied against the legislation, according to an article in Pitt’s University Times. Pitt cited concerns about disclosing information about negotiations, salaries and research.

Lisa Powers, a Penn State spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement that the amendment “appears to be a significant expansion of the type and amount of Penn State’s financial information available for public inspection.” She said the university supported the provision to treat the campus police like a municipal police force.

Spokesmen for Temple and Pitt echoed Powers, describing the amendment as a significant expansion but one they largely supported.

“We already make a great deal of information about the University of Pittsburgh available to the public in a convenient and accessible manner and this proposed expansion of those reporting obligations will add significantly to the information available to the public,” said Kenneth Service, vice chancellor for communications at Pitt.

Temple said that they will continue to follow the law, whether or not the proposed changes are implemented.

Lincoln representatives could not be reached for comment.

The bill still must be approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. If the committee passes it, the bill will go to the Senate floor in the fall. Arneson said the Senate will work with the House of Representatives and Gov. Tom Corbett to make sure the bill passes.

“One of our plans over the summer is to work jointly with the House to have any further adjustments that are needed for the bill,” Arneson said. “That process typically leads to a smooth vote in both chambers. As things sit here on June 19, we’re very optimistic.”

Contact Spoont by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.