Pennsylvania taxpayers have the right to know how the universities they support spend their money | PennLive Editorial


If you give someone $500 million every year, you have the right to know how they spend it.

This is the approximate amount Pennsylvania taxpayers distribute to universities at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, Temple, and Lincoln, all of which are part of the Commonwealth higher education system. These universities are considered ‘state-linked’. They are legally private institutions that receive state funding in exchange for offering reduced tuition to Pennsylvania residents.

Old Main on the main campus of Penn State University is seen November 9, 2017 in State College, Pennsylvania.AP File Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Schools receive less than 10% of their annual funding from the state and did not have to answer questions from anyone about their budgets and spending.

Senate Bill 488 would change that. This would draw the curtains and turn on certain lights so that taxpayers have more information about the salaries, contracts and budgets of state-related institutions. And the information would be accessible to everyone via online databases.

The Senate State Government Committee unanimously approved the bill. If passed by the entire legislature, it would significantly strengthen the state’s Right to Know Act and allow for greater public scrutiny of the finances of some of the state’s major higher education institutions.

Temple Trade School

People walk past the Fox School of Business on the Temple University campus in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)PA

Because they were considered independent institutions, Pennsylvania exempted them from the open records provisions. But the Commonwealth is one of only three states in the country to allow open records exemption for universities that receive state funding. These institutions in all other states are subject to open records laws.

Senate Bill 488 is sponsored by State Senator Doug Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial candidate. Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for governor, also backs the bill, which enjoys bipartisan support. We also believe this is a good first step in bringing more transparency to the finances of these schools, even if it is not enough to require the true openness that many other states require.

The bill would mandate the public disclosure of each university’s annual income and expenditure reports, and they would have to make public the minutes of the board of trustees. Additionally, they should provide information on median and average salaries as well as data on non-salary compensation.

But universities wouldn’t have to disclose specific salaries for the top 200 employees — only salary ranges. And universities wouldn’t have to disclose donor information.

Historically Black College Battle of the Bands

The Lincoln University Marching Band performs in a showcase at Harrisburg High School’s Severence Field in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on August 24, 2019. Mark Pynes | [email protected]

Other more transparent states are easily searchable online databases allow the public to obtain accurate information on salaries and financial data.

While this is not a perfect bill, we urge lawmakers to support such efforts to keep taxpayers informed about how their money is being spent. As the cost of higher education continues to threaten access for low-income residents, such scrutiny can be a powerful incentive to control spending and tuition increases.

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