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Politics & Government

Senate Bills Could Strengthen Right-to-Know Law

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA

Two bills are sitting in the Senate Committee on State Government aimed at strengthening Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law.

Legislation introduced by Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna) would bring more transparency to state-related universities, while Sen. Dominic Pileggi’s (R-Delaware) bill would establish a fee structure for commercial requests and update definitions within the law.

Blake’s Senate Bill 412 would require state-related universities to upload budgetary, contract and enrollment data to a publicly accessible database.

According to Blake, that information has typically been publicly available, but difficult to find. He said the database will allow the public to see how the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University and Temple and Lincoln universities spend state dollars.

“Even though the state appropriation that we give them is really a bit of fragment—a very, very small, marginal fragment of their overall operation or budget—it’s still in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and it does actually effect the tuition that these institutions charge,” he said.

Last year, Pitt received more than $147 million from the state, about 7.5 percent of the school’s $1.97 billion budget.

But, the bill’s language regarding the public nature of employee salaries might counteract a somewhat already transparent system.

Under the current Right-to-Know Law, each of the four schools is required to provide the state with a list of their 25 highest employee salaries. Blake’s legislation would expand that list to 200 employee salaries, but would be given in ranges as opposed to specific amounts.

Lincoln University’s policy wouldn’t change because it has fewer than 2,500 employees, but Pitt, Penn State and Temple’s would.

Blake said the bill’s language will need to be changed for it to pass, but he couldn’t say when that might happen.

“We’re not going to retreat from transparency,” he said. “I’ll probably put an amendment up on the bill, work with my leadership and work with the Republican majority and try to work out details to make sure that we accomplish what we set out to do, which is additional transparency and accountability.”

Pileggi’s legislation is nearly identical to his Senate Bill 444, which never made it out of the House Committee on State Government last year.

The bill creates a fee structure for commercial Right-to-Know requests; defines campus police as a local agency, allowing their requests to be handled with the same urgency as municipal police departments; and, defines personal income tax forms as private, not public, information.

The bill also ensures prison inmates have access to records related to themselves or their cases. According to Pileggi, inmate appeals account for 40 percent of all appeals to the Office of Open Records.

Pileggi expects the Senate to vote on his amendments sometime this spring.