Pa. Senate unanimously votes in favor of bill limiting public-records exemptions at ‘state-related’ universities

Members of the Pennsylvania Senate unanimously approved a bill Wednesday that could require state-related universities to provide additional information to the public, bringing requirements closer in line with those of all other public agencies in the commonwealth.

The bill would require Pennsylvania’s state-related universities — Temple University, Penn State University, University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University — to submit an annual report highlighting the institution’s highest-paid employees. Additionally, the law would require the universities to disclose information about the university’s budget, revenues and expenditures.

The bill, which intends to update the state’s 2008 open records law, now moves to the House.

Bills expanding the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law to cover more university records have been filed without success for years. But the movement picked up new impetus following the 2011 arrest and subsequent child-molestation conviction of former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, whose wrongdoing evaded public disclosure for years in part because of Penn State’s ability to conceal nearly all of its records.

Only Pennsylvania and Delaware have open records exemptions for “state-related” or “publicly funded” universities — institutions that receive taxpayer dollars but receive a majority of their funding from private donors.

According to the legislation, the public must be able to search, sort and download the filings online. The institutions would also be required to keep one copy in their libraries and to provide copies to the state. The bill would also require universities to report all contracts for goods and outside vendors valued at $5,000 or more.

Sen. John Blake, D-22nd District, said he recognized a “lack of predictability, accountability and transparency” in the process for requesting records. He said he worked with lead sponsor Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-9th District, on the bill to increase consistency across the state-related institutions when the public requested records.

In addition to the changes for state-related universities, the bill would limit what information inmates can request. Erik Arneson, spokesman for Pileggi, said about 40 percent of the appeals that the Office of Open Records received came from inmates.

The sponsors used feedback from requesters, government agencies and the public’s comments during open forums to update the 2008 open records law, Arneson said.

Blake said that there is “a hope and an expectation” that the House will pass the bill before the legislative session ends.

SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.