Right to Know takes aim at Pennsylvania universities

Access advocates cite Sandusky scandal as evidence of need for more transparency

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HARRISBURG -- The state's top open records official is hopeful legislation will pass this year to include Pennsylvania's four state-related universities in the state's Right to Know Law.

"I believe that it will happen. I believe that it will happen this fall," said Terry Mutchler, speaking Monday at a Pennsylvania Press Club Luncheon.

Penn State University, the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln University are defined as state-related institutions that are obligated under the Right to Know Law to provide only limited financial information.

Ms. Mutchler was responding to a question from the audience about a Commonwealth Court ruling last week that could have open records implications for the four schools.

"Any time there is taxpayer money spent, there should be accountability to the taxpayer," she said, arguing for greater public access to the records. Open government advocates have pushed for years for the schools to have more transparency, but the issue seems to have gained new urgency in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State.

There are three primary ways a law could be crafted to cover such schools, Ms. Mutchler stated: to have the institutions covered outright by the Right to Know law, to cover the police departments of the schools, or to require the schools to account for each state dollar they receive.

"It has to be done right. It has to be done well. The implications of it have to be thought through," Ms. Mutchler said.

A hearing on the issue in the Senate is planned for the fall, said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi.

"We recognize the need to expand the [Right to Know Law] with regard to the state-related universities," Mr. Arneson said in an email.

In the House, a bill sponsored by Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, would make the universities all subject to the Right to Know Law; it would provide certain exemptions, such as for some donor identities and research information.

A Pitt spokesman said the school is "open to legislative consideration of these issues and how the existing system of accountability could be enhanced," according to an emailed statement from Paul Supowitz, vice chancellor for community and governmental relations. He said the school is already subject to multiple reporting and disclosure requirements that provide information about how the Commonwealth's appropriation is spent.

According to budget documents, all four schools receive millions in state support. Penn State is due to receive about $214 million in the current fiscal year, Pitt about $136 million, Temple about $139 million and Lincoln about $13 million, according to budget information from the Senate Republican caucus.

education - state

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.


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