Monday, February 12, 2007

Open to Debate

Adam Smeltz has an article up at the CDT this morning on the building momentum for a new open records law in Pennsylvania to cover state-aided universities .

The secrecy that has enshrouded a number of Penn State court settlements may soon face a challenge in Harrisburg.

Senate Republican leadership began pushing last month to expand the state Right-to-Know Law. Proposed changes would require the General Assembly and state-related universities to make their detailed financial records available to the public.

In a little-reported nuance, the expansion could also prevent the universities -- including Penn State -- from keeping some court settlements in confidence.

Agreements such as the secret settlement among Penn State, women's basketball coach Rene Portland and former player Jennifer Harris could be opened to public inspection.

It isn't immediately clear whether the changes could apply retroactively to past agreements or only to future settlements.

But Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, said disclosing financial records should not be a hardship for the universities. A board member at Lincoln University, Pileggi has become a main advocate for the amendments.

"I think it's always easier for (universities) to not have to disclose information," Pileggi said.

Because they receive substantial taxpayer support, however, "they should be prepared and expect to open questions, fully and candidly, about how they spend that money," he said.

Penn State is expected to receive about $342 million in state money for the 2006-07 year. That amounts to about 10 percent of the university budget.

While I want to see sunshine flood Old Main, this news may not be as good as it appears on the surface. The reason is that Pileggi's bill, as I earlier noted, would keep the status quo on the presumption to know. Currently, it is up to the requester of a publicly held record to prove that they have right to see it. Pileggi doesn't want to change that. On the other hand, freshman Democratic State Representative Tim Mahoney (Fayette) has proposed legislation which would make it clear that publicly held records are presumed to be open unless otherwise exempted by law. Mahoney's bill would also extends the open records law to state-aided universities. Since I have not seen it I don't know how much it overlaps with Pileggi's proposed legislation with regard to state-aided universities. I would hope that the final legislation would incorporate the best of these two proposed bills. But, I suspect that Pileggi only wants to water down the Mahoney bill.

For now Old Main is holding its fire on the proposed legislation.

Bill Mahon, a Penn State spokesman, said the university has not staked out a position on the legislative prospects for open records. He did not want to speculate how Penn State may weigh in, he said, citing the uncertainty of the discussions.

"From reading the press, it appears that there are a lot of different ideas being floated around Harrisburg," Mahon said.

Shorter Mahon: We aren't going to come across like we have something to hide when we there is still a chance we can kill this through back channels. Meet Penn State's back channel.

State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, said Penn State should be clear in identifying how it spends state money.

But "I don't think that they necessarily have to open up every book they have," Corman said. "When 90 percent of the budget is not state dollars -- that's a far cry from a state-owned university."

Corman said that some private institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania, also receive state funds.

"The Right-to-Know (Law) should affect what state dollars are being spent and how they're being spent," he said. "I don't think our right to know is any farther past that."

Freshman State Representative Scot Conklin (D-Centre) didn't hew quite so close to the Penn State line. Conklin

will take "a darn good look" at expanding the Right-to-Know provisions, said his chief of staff, Tor Michaels. A House bill similar to Pileggi's Senate pitch is in the works.

"Our philosophy is going to be the more open, the better," Michaels said. " ... The representative does believe that if taxpayer money is being expended, the people have the right to know the amount."

At the same time, Michaels said, access should be "smart, responsible and fair to all sides."

Personal information "should remain confidential," he said.

In think its clear from the bit in bold that Scot's arm may be a bit sore from all the twisting it has endured from Old Main, but the rest of the quote indicates that he hasn't capitulated to Graham just yet. I think it is important the public grabs his other arm and starts to twist it in the opposite direction.

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