Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Commonwealth Has Created the Gorillas. Give Us What We Need to Defend Against Them.

History repeats itself with the latest Right-To-Know legislation.

...Education Secretary Eugene Hickok had talked within his agency about the possibility of giving the public open access to data on tax dollars that flow into these quasi-public universities, Education Department spokesman Dan Langan said.

"We do it for lower education. Perhaps it's time to start applying a very similar principle to higher education -- at least the commonwealth's investment in higher education," Langan said.

If the secretary starts down that path, he's in for a long, hard fight.

Just ask state Rep. Ron Cowell, D-Wilkins, minority chairman of the House Education Committee, who wrote the state's first ethics law 20 years ago and is a former Pitt trustee.

After a public outcry in 1991 over the size of a retirement package given to then-Pitt President Wesley Posvar, Cowell introduced legislation to bring Pitt and the other state-related schools under the state's Right to Know law.

The bill passed the House, and the governor promised to sign it. But it died in the Senate.

In the years that followed, Cowell introduced amendments that would have tied all four schools' appropriations to their willingness to submit to the Right to Know law.

That effort failed, too.

What ultimately passed about four years ago was a far less sweeping legislative amendment to those schools' annual appropriations bill. It requires that the schools each year give the governor and Legislature books of raw data on such items as expenditures and revenues by department, vendor payments and average faculty salaries on campus.

Cowell had wanted much more.

He said he was disappointed that, as legislators, "We haven't had the good sense to take what I consider to be a very modest step to promote more public accountability for a significant amount of tax dollars."

"I don't believe anyone is a crook, but I do believe the likelihood of public scrutiny influences your behavior, personally and as an institution," Cowell said.

The idea "that somebody is watching over your shoulder" is a strong deterrent to misbehavior, he said.

"The paradox is that we have legislators who, on the one hand, insist that we ought to have more accountability with respect to higher education and we ought to demand more efficiency and more effectiveness, but many of those same legislators will vote against what I consider to be a really simple tool -- public disclosure," Cowell said.
Nearly, sixteen years after the last attempt to extend the Right-To-Know law to the state-related universities failed, it failed again. The last time the citizens of the Commonwealth got the Stairs Reports as a consolation prize. This time around we get Form 990 data. This data may be useful to some extent, but it is inadequate for keeping the keepers of these school honest.

Let's consider a hypothetical situation. A township supervisor twice votes in to rezone farmland to make way for development at the request of a state-related university, but against the wishes of most of the supervisor's constituents. The supervisor lists his occupation as freelance writer and claims publicly not to have any financial ties to the state-related university. But it turns out that the supervisor does contract work for the school. This raises the question of a conflict of interest. Certainly it would be legitimate for a citizen to want to know if the timing of his work for the state-related university correlates with his votes and if he is paid above market rates by the state-related university. The compensation for his work would be far less than the $750,000 minimum threshold of the Stairs Report and even if it weren't those Reports couldn't be used to determine the timing of the payments. The new Form 990 requirement doesn't help this citizen. The only thing that would help is the ability to file an open records request for his compensation.

Rendell must send Senate Bill 1 back to the General Assembly with the request of one small change, strike the sentence,"THE TERM DOES NOT INCLUDE A STATE-RELATED INSTITUTION", in the definition of state-afilliated entity. This would give citizens a tool they need to stand up for themselves against the 800 pound gorillas with billion dollar budgets which the Commonwealth has helped to create.

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