Sunshine’s been called the best disinfectant, and Pennsylvania legislators are looking to bring more of those rays to its state-related universities.
State House lawmakers in Harrisburg want the four state-related institutions to follow the same rules that apply to the 14 state-owned colleges.
Although they receive state funding, Penn State, Temple, Pitt and Lincoln universities are exempt from Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law and Ethics Act.
Three Republican lawmakers from western Pennsylvania — Reps. John Maher, Jim Christiana and Aaron Bernstine — plan to introduce a series of bills that would require more transparency and accountability — as well as mandating that the four schools begin abiding by those open records laws.
The bills would require greater disclosure of financial information; require certain employees to file financial interest statements to avoid conflicts of interest; and substantially change the size, operation and structure of Penn State’s board of trustees.
All three proposals came from recommendations in the state auditor general’s special performance audit of Penn State last year.
The legislation came about, in part, because of numerous conversations with students and alumni of the schools, said Bernstine of Lawrence County.
“Nearly every alumni at these universities and every taxpayer believes that there should be more transparency in the way that their money is spent,” he said.
Momentum for greater transparency at state-related universities has been growing since the former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky’s 2011 arrest and child-molestation conviction. His actions escaped public disclosure, partially because Penn State was able to conceal nearly all of its records.
Bernstine says some areas, including intellectual property and proprietary research, will still be protected under the law.
“It allows that protection to make sure that they’re still allowed to be great research institutions, while also providing the opportunity for Pennsylvania taxpayers to see how, where and why their money is spent,” he said.
Pennsylvania and Delaware are the only states that have open records exemptions for state-related universities — institutions that get taxpayer dollars, but receive a majority of their funding from private donors.
Christiana, a co-sponsor of the bills, said Pennsylvanians are demanding transparency.
“The more transparency that the taxpayers get, the more that they want, and I think that’s good budgeting,” he said. “I think when you’re dealing with taxpayer money, that’s a really, really good principle to abide by.”
He said he’s hoping the schools will view these bills as commonsense and not as antagonistic.
“The transparency measures that we’ve put in place for the General Assembly and our employees and our staff, I think it’s an appropriate time to expand those into other areas of state government that receive a tremendous amount of taxpayer resources,” said Christiana of Beaver County.
Ray Betzner, spokesman for Temple, said the university is already working with the state Senate on transparency issues.
“We’ve shown in the past we’ve been willing to work with members of the General Assembly on this issue,” he said. “We realize it’s an important one for legislators. It’s also an important one for us. So. we’re happy to work with them when we have a chance to see the legislation.”
The state Senate has already introduced S.B.466 that would strengthen the open records law regarding state-related universities.
One of the bills also downsizes Penn State’s board of trustees from 36 to 21 members.
“We want to make sure that this is a board that is no longer controlled by special interests. It is the board that is controlled by taxpayers, and it is a board that is controlled by alumni of our great university,” said Bernstine, a Penn State graduate.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the boards at all the state-related universities are too big.
“It prevents the actual board members from having the necessary appropriate oversight,” he said.
Penn State officials say the school is committed to accountability and to their board.
Legislators and the auditor general plan to look at other state-related boards and make recommendations for changes. The bills are expected to be introduced this spring.