June 18, 2014

Senate Committee OKs Open Records Law Expansion For State-Related Universities

The Senate State Government Committee Wednesday amended and reported out Senate Bill 444 (Pileggi-R-Delaware) to expand how the Pennsylvania’s Open Records Law applies to the four state-related universities – Pennsylvania State University, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University.
As amended by the State Government Committee, Senate Bill 444 will require Penn State, Temple, Pitt and Lincoln to create searchable, sortable and downloadable databases on their freely accessible public websites.
The databases will include extensive budget, revenue and expenditure data; the number of employees and aggregated, non-personal employee data; and the number of students and aggregated, non-personal student data.
State-related universities will also be required to post information about contracts valued at $5,000 or more on Pennsylvania’s online contract database, and most of the universities will be required to report the top 200 employee salaries. State-related universities with fewer than 2,500 employees will continue to report the top 25 salaries, as required by the existing law.
“For the first time, the public will have easy online access to detailed budget and academic data for Penn State, Temple, Pitt and Lincoln,” said  Sen. Pileggi. “Given the level of public support that goes to these universities every year, it makes perfect sense to take this important step.”
“This bill will be another big win for taxpayers,” said Senate State Government Committee Majority Chair Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster). “In recent years, citizens have seen too much of the serious ethical problems and the scandals that secrecy is conducive to. In contrast, the Open Records Law has improved accountability and given the public a much better look at what their government is doing. That’s the sort of transparency we want to build on.”
“Under this amended Senate Bill 444, our state-related universities will be held accountable for every state dollar the institutions receive,” said Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna). “This necessary improvement in the Open Records Law dramatically increases the amount of information subject to public scrutiny and enhances the ease with which citizens can obtain that information. I was glad to work with Sen. Dominic Pileggi in achieving these important reforms.”
“This is an important step in providing greater transparency and accountability in how significant public funds are being spent,” said Sen. Matt Smith (D-Allegheny), the Minority Chair of the State Government Committee. “This was a collaborative bipartisan effort to ensure that state tax dollars are best serving students of the Commonwealth.”
The underlying bill includes additional improvements to the existing Open Records Law, such as ensuring that campus police departments are covered by the law just as local police departments are, clarifying that safety inspection reports are public, establishing a new fee structure for commercial requests, and creating a new section to address records requests made by inmates.
A separate amendment adopted by the State Government Committee clarifies the news media’s exemption from the commercial request provisions, ensures that the Office of Open Records – even as a fully independent agency – will receive appropriate payroll and administrative support, and makes a number of smaller changes.
Sen. Pileggi said he intends to continue work on the legislation through the summer. “Pennsylvania’s new Open Records Law is widely recognized as one of the best in the nation,” he said. “This bill makes a number of important and necessary changes, and it’s important to get them right.”