Pennsylvania ranks 49 out of 50 states for having the worst open-records law in the country. The Paterno salary story, which made the front page of every newspaper in the state, should be a wake-up call to Pennsylvania residents.
The world now knows how much Joe Paterno makes as head football coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions.
My life hasn't changed one bit since I found out that Paterno earns $512,664 a year. I graduated from Penn State but it never occurred to me to ask how much Paterno made when I attended school in State College or in the years since I left Happy Valley.
I never gave any thought to Paterno's salary until I learned that a newspaper had been trying for five years to get the information.
Paterno's salary was one of the best-kept secrets in Pennsylvania, a state where keeping the public in the dark is one of the primary missions of government. Pennsylvania ranks 49 out of 50 states for having the worst open-records law in the country.
The State Employees' Retirement System released Paterno's salary a week after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that his salary and those of other top Penn State officials are public information.
How much the 80-year-old coach makes isn't as important as the fact that so many government and university officials worked so hard for so long to keep the information out of public sight.
The revelation that Paterno makes $512,000 was almost anti-climatic. Most people were under the impression that Paterno was making more than $1 million a year based on his longevity at Penn State and the success he has brought to the school’s football program.
"I'm paid well. I'm not overpaid," Paterno told reporters. "I got all the money I need."
What a refreshing statement from a public figure in a state where greed has become the norm. Pennsylvania legislators, already among the highest paid in the country, voted themselves pay raises of 16 percent to 54 percent during a middle-of-the-night session on July 7, 2005. Gov. Ed Rendell signed the pay grab into law. It took a backlash from Pennsylvania residents to get the Legislature to rescind the pay raise.
And let's not compare Paterno's salary to that of some other coaches who run big-time football programs. Alabama's Nick Saban is the highest paid coach at $4 million per year. Oklahoma's Bob Stoops makes over $3 million. Florida's Urban Meyer, Ohio State's Jim Tressel and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier make $2 million annually.
Paterno, the second winningest college football coach of all time, is underpaid compared to other coaches. Paterno is Penn State. His value to the school cannot be measured in dollars and cents. And let's not forget that Paterno and his wife have donated $4 million to Penn State over the years.
I don't think anyone can argue that Paterno isn't worth every dollar Penn State pays him. The salary revelation should put renewed focus on the current debate in the Pennsylvania Legislature over open records.
The reason the Harrisburg Patriot-News had to fight so hard in the courts to get the salary information is because Pennsylvania law presumes that all government and quasi-government agencies are entitled to keep secrets.
The public, through newspapers and other media outlets, have to persuade courts that the information should be public. This presumption is backwards. The burden should be on the government to show why information associated with how it spends the public's money or conducts the public's business should be kept from the public.
Political commentator Lowman Henry has an interesting take on the Paterno salary disclosure:
"Why then would Penn State's power brokers fight so hard to keep such information confidential? In a word: arrogance. It has become apparent they simply believe, despite the fact PSU receives hundreds of millions of tax dollars each year, We The People have no right to know what they are doing with our money. Clearly the Paterno salary is not untoward, and the university is generally perceived as one of the finest in the nation. Why then the secrecy?"
The Paterno salary story, which made the front page of every newspaper in the state, should be a wake-up call to Pennsylvania residents. They need to be engaged in the current debate about revising the state's open-records laws. This is not about giving newspapers special access. This is about giving the people of Pennsylvania the right to know how their elected officials are conducting the people's business.
A vote on revisions to the open-records law could come any day now. Make sure your elected representatives know you’re paying attention and will not tolerate any more secrecy.
Tony Phyrillas is a leading conservative political columnist and blogger based in Pennsylvania. He is a veteran journalist with 25 years experience as a reporter, editor and columnist for several newspapers. Phyrillas received recognition for column writing in 2010 from the Associated Press Managing Editors, in 2007 from Suburban Newspapers of America and in 2006 from the Society of Professional Journalists, Keystone Chapter. A graduate of Penn State University, Phyrillas is the city editor and political columnist for The Mercury, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper in Pottstown, Pa. In addition to The Mercury website (www.pottsmerc.com), his columns are featured on more than a dozen political websites and blogs. Phyrillas is a frequent guest (and occasional host) on talk radio and has been a panelist on the "Journalists Roundtable" public affairs TV program on the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN). Phyrillas was named one of the '10 Leading Greek-American Bloggers in the World' in 2007 by Odyssey: The World of Greece magazine. BlogNetNews.com ranked Phyrillas the Most Influential Political Blogger in Pennsylvania for three consecutive years (2007-2010). You can follow Phyrillas on Twitter @TonyPhyrillas