New ‘open’ bill long overdue

A proposal to put Penn State and three other state-related universities under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law cleared an early test Monday with passage in the House State Government Committee.

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, who introduced the bill that garnered a 17-6 vote in the committee, said it’s a measure to make transparency requirements consistent for all public higher-education institutions.

Because Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln universities accept significant amounts of state tax dollars – currently $514.8 million – it has long been argued that their operations should be subject to public disclosure under the Right-to-Know Law.

And while those universities have offered some understandable objections to public disclosure, Benninghoff says that such concerns can be addressed under the law’s exemptions.

“Taxpayers help to fund both our state-owned and state-related universities,” Benninghoff said. “There shouldn’t be two different levels of transparency and accountability. If the schools are taking taxpayer money, they have a responsibility to submit to public oversight.”

That’s a good reason to support Benninghoff’s legislation, but it’s not the only one.

After the November 2011 arrests of former Penn State defensive coach Jerry Sandusky, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, Penn State pointed to its exclusion from the Right-to-Know Law as it turned down requests for related records and information.

In a memo to lawmakers seeking support for his bill, Benninghoff asked them to consider what might have been known about the revelations at Penn State if the Right-to-Know Law had offered greater access to that institution’s records.

In our support of Benninghoff’s legislation, we’ll also refer to the state Supreme Court ruling in November 2007 which ordered the State Employees’ Retirement System to disclose the salaries and service histories of some top Penn State University administrators.

In that ruling, Justice James J. Fitzgerald III wrote: “Individuals and private entities cannot reasonably expect the Commonwealth to keep secrets from its citizens regarding the distribution of public funds, past, present or future.”

Benninghoff’s bill now heads to the full House for consideration.

We hope it keeps moving forward because it’s long overdue.