By Thomas Mitchell
Some lawmakers in Carson City are pushing a bill that basically declares that it is none of your business how your tax money is spent. Senate Bill 224 would make the names of recipients of pensions through the Public Employees’ Retirement System secret.
The first glimpse at the kinds of duplicity this bill invites is the fact that two of the three chief sponsors of the bill — state Sens. David Parks and Joyce Woodhouse — are currently drawing six-figure pensions from PERS, a fact that would not be known if this bill were already in law.
At a recent hearing on the bill, the third sponsor, state Sen. Julia Ratti, argued that PERS benefits are set aside for the public employees’ future use and asked, “At what point is public servant no longer a public person?”
The answer is: When that person no longer obliges the public to guarantee that pension. Right now the taxpayers are on the hook for $40 billion in unfunded liabilities, when standard accounting practices are used to make the calculation. Never mind that the taxpayers paid half of the pension contributions for that government worker retiree and all of the rather princely salary that public employee used for their half of the contribution.
Perhaps the most egregious argument made in the hearing is that the bill would cut the cost of litigation. It was PERS itself that created that cost by trying to skirt court rulings that stated the names of public pensioners and their pension amounts are public records under the Nevada public records law, which states that its purpose is to foster democratic principles by providing taxpayers with access to public records.
After the state Supreme Court ruled the records were public, PERS changed the way it kept the records, prompting Chief Justice Michael Douglas to suggest PERS had “gone out of its way to violate the spirit of the law.”
The bill’s backers are still arguing that revealing the names of pensioners might expose them to identity theft and fraud. The state Supreme Court dismissed that claim in its 2013 ruling by saying, “Because PERS failed to present evidence to support its position that disclosure of the requested information would actually cause harm to retired employees or even increase the risk of harm, the record indicates that their concerns were merely hypothetical and speculative. Therefore, because the government’s interests in nondisclosure in this instance do not clearly outweigh the public’s presumed right to access, we conclude that the district court did not err in balancing the interests involved in favor of disclosure.”
During a hearing on SB224, Robert Fellner, policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, countered that the publication of public pension information has enabled the public to correct abuses of such systems. A tip to California’s fraud hotline resulted in the system recovering more than $200,000, Fellner noted, causing CalPERS to release a statement praising “the great value of the public’s assistance in CalPERS’ efforts to protect the state pension system from fraud, waste, and abuse.”
In another example, Fellner noted that the importance of disclosing names was highlighted when a Los Angeles television station discovered that a police officer who was drawing a disability pension from one city was working full-time as a police officer for another agency.
“This type of abuse will be impossible to detect if SB224 becomes law and makes secret the names of those drawing tax-funded public pensions,” he testified, adding that 20 states maintain online public pension databases.
The law that set up PERS states: “It is the policy of this State to provide, through the Public Employees’ Retirement System: A reasonable base income to qualified employees who have been employed by a public employer and whose earning capacity has been removed or has been substantially reduced by age or disability.”
Yet in a previous court case NPRI’s attorney Joseph Becker observed that there are retirees in their 40’s collecting six-figure disbursements from PERS, while still earning income from other sources. “Only through the publication of name, pension payout and related data can the public better understand how the system works and the legislative purpose be effectuated,” he wrote.
Lawmakers should reject SB224’s effort to blinder the public. If not, Gov. Steve Sisolak — who once told a newspaper columnist, this one, that public employee contracting should be transparent and that the public employee pension system was overdue for reform — should veto it.