Editorial: Public records bills still pending

As the Legislature grinds its way down to sine die in a couple of weeks, there are still some pending bills that could affect your ability and that of the press to see just what our elected and appointed officials are up to by being able to access public records.

Senate Bill 287 would put some teeth in the current Nevada public records law, which requires that all public records and books, except those specifically exempted as confidential by law, must be open for inspection and copying. Despite the clear language saying the law should be liberally interpreted various agencies have manufactured excuses for not complying or simply flouted the law and basically said: If you want it, sue us.

Meanwhile in North Carolina

Should SB287 become law, if a court determines a governmental entity or the person making the decision on behalf of the governmental entity wrongly denies a records request, the requester may be awarded a civil penalty of not less than $1,000 or more than $250,000 per offense from the agency or the responsible party or both.

Some lawmakers and public officials, of course, are blanching at the $250,000 threat, but there should be room for compromise.

Richard Karpel, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, recently commented, “SB287 represents a real opportunity to enact public-records reform in Nevada. Among many other helpful provisions, SB287 would establish civil penalties for government officials who fail to comply with the Public Records Act … limit the ability of local governments and state agencies to charge excessive fees for records requests; and require government workers to help requesters focus their requests to get the information they are seeking.”

Karpel noted the press association and other members of the newly formed Right to Know Nevada testified in support of the bill in early April during a Senate Government Affairs Committee meeting.

“An army of government lobbyists lined up to testify against it,” Karpel said but the bill remains extant and is being shepherded by lawmakers sympathetic to the cause.

He said the press association is participating in a working group, which includes both supporters and opponents of the bill, which is trying to address concerns raised during the hearing.

Though opponents have attempted to gut the bill and add sweeping exemptions to the public records law, Karpel said, “Fortunately, there is a real desire among many lawmakers to pass a public records bill this session. That includes Gov. (Steve) Sisolak, who commented on his support for government transparency and the need to ensure there are ‘repercussions’ for foot-dragging state agencies in (a) recent interview with the (Las Vegas) Review Journal. So we’re hopeful we can get SB287 to the finish line before the session ends in June.”

On the obverse side of the coin is Senate Bill 224, which would exempt from the public records law the names of those who are drawing taxpayer funded pensions from the Public Employees’ Retirement System.

SB224 narrowly passed in the state Senate a couple of weeks ago on a vote of 11-10 with two Democrats joining all eight Republicans in opposing it.

State Sen. Pete Goicoechea, a Eureka Republican, said he opposed the bill because the pensions are taxpayer funded. “The people who are paying those funds have the right to know the name and the amount,” he was quoted as saying at the time. “I believe the public does have the right to know who it is and how much they are benefiting.”

Proponents of the bill have argued pensioners could be affected by identity theft, though they’ve not sighted a single instance of this occurring. Opponents argue the release of the names can help detect abuse of the system.

A tip to California’s fraud hotline once resulted in its pension system recovering more than $200,000. In a statement the California public employee pension system praised “the great value of the public’s assistance in CalPERS’ efforts to protect the state pension system from fraud, waste, and abuse.”

In another case 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.

These abuses will be impossible to detect should SB224 pass and become law.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

26 comments on “Editorial: Public records bills still pending

  1. Steve says:

    Those are good arguments for keeping public PERS beneficiaries names.

    But, and bear with me, this is a bit nuanced.

    Once an employee is paid, at what point does that pay become private money?

    I say that happens the instant the money is transferred from the employer to the employee.
    At that point no one has any right to know how that employee uses their money.
    PERS operates like other retirement programs. The gross pay is transferred to the employee and deductions are automatically distributed. One of those is to PERS. Since this money was first paid to the employee, it is no longer tax money. This money became private at the time of transfer. IT goes to PERS as private money, not public.
    Matching funds are paid direct from the employer to PERS. These matching funds are still subject to public information laws because they have not yet been paid to the employee. And all the information tied to those funds are subject to public information, including the employee’s name.

    The only funds in PERS subject to public information are those funds that come directly from the employer and any revenues required to keep PERS afloat. All the money that is first paid to the employee is private and none of that is subject to public information.

    This leads to a very pertinent question. To date; how much money has the state been required to disburse to PERS in order for PERS to fulfill obligations or to cover operating expenses?

    I have not seen any reporting on that portion of the issue and PERS fully expects all future obligations to be fully funded through their, well respected, investing strategy.
    Remember obligations do not come in a lump sum, they come as people reach retirement eligibility. So the whole “unfunded liability” thing falls flat on its face, it simply does not happen all at once.

    Bottom line, the only funds in PERS subject to public information law are those funds transferred directly from government to PERS.
    Once paid to an employee, the money is no longer tax money. It is private money.

  2. Steve says:

    One last bit.
    Other than the matching funds portion, money paid to a retiree is also not public information due to the fact it was first paid to them during their working lives.
    The only portion of a retiree’s benefit that should be subject to public information is that portion which finally makes it to the employee, the matching funds portion.

  3. The taxpayer is on the hook for all unfunded liabilities.

  4. Anonymous says:

    And how many times has the taxpayer been called on to provide such funding to PERS?

  5. Steve says:

    That was me.

    And any such need would not occur in one lump sum.

    PERS investment strategy is well recognized/regarded in financial circles and in some, is even a model for private investing.

    NV PERS is as stable as any investment based strategy can be.

  6. The taxpayer is the source of last resort.

  7. Steve says:

    If it ever happens, then that portion of funds would be subject to public information.

    But the taxpayer money used to pay an employee is not.

  8. How does one catch fraud?

  9. Steve says:

    Matching funds are public, double dipping would be as easily discovered from that portion of payout. And the names associated with that portion of payout remain public. I’m not saying hide their names because they are still getting a portion of their benefit paid with tax money, that portion is the “matching funds” paid direct to PERS from the employer, those are not first paid to the employee. So that portion remains tax money until it is finally paid to the (now retired) employee.

    Current fraudulent activity in NV has been to “pad” ones pay with call back and overtime. CCFD learned the hard way that is a bad idea. And that fraud was certainly caught.

  10. Rincon says:

    It seems reasonable that the boss should have access to all financial information, including the pay (or pension earnings) for each and every employee, and the taxpayers are the ultimate boss, just as shareholders are the ultimate boss for publicly traded corporations. Why do our corporations hide these figures? For that matter, why do privately held businesses do the same? Is it possible that their reasons apply to government?

    How can our government compete for the best employees, when private employers keep pay scales to themselves, while public employees risk having their earnings information plastered all over the front page someday? This would likely inhibit top executives most of all, which risks a substantial brain drain. Do you want government to be run like a business or not?

    Collated and averaged figures should be quite sufficient to reveal if government’s personnel costs get out of line. Why is it necessary to reveal the pay for each and every individual employee? For individual fraud, the same rules should apply to both private and public employees.

  11. Steve says:

    So, as a business owner, Rincon has (or wishes yo have) all knowledge of how the employees spend and/or save the pay they earn while working for the practice.

    I wouldn’t work for you.

  12. Rincon says:

    Really Steve? Is there any sane person that believes that bosses have detailed information on how their employees spend their money? I did said all financial information. The easily understood, but unwritten part was, “…that is known by the business.” I think it’s obvious that since a business doesn’t have spending information, then there’s no reasonable way the boss could access it.

  13. Anonymous says:

    “or save”

    comprehension vs cherry picking.

    I admit, I left it up to you to make the choice.

    Very telling the choice you made, is.

  14. Rincon says:

    So you think it’s cherry picking to point out words that were incorrect? So be it. As for “save”, I have no information regarding my employees’ retirement accounts, except how much I put in, and where the investment is held. I have no information to suggest that other businesses have this either.

  15. Steve says:

    And that is what I was saying is the only portion of public employee retirement subject to public information law.

    Yet your own lead in was:
    “It seems reasonable that the boss should have access to all financial information, including the pay (or pension earnings) for each and every employee,”…

    I say, once paid to the employee no boss has any right to any info on how the employee saves, spends or gets paid out of savings in retirement.
    In the case of public employee pay, the only information that is public is that which directly concerns tax payer revenue.
    Once an employee is paid, that money is no longer tax payer revenue.

  16. Rincon says:

    We agree on that. Sorry for my contribution to that little merry go round. My question is why corporation shareholders do not have access to all personnel information. After all, they are the bosses. Can government compete if the playing field becomes slanted?

  17. Steve says:

    Same trouble, once paid, corporate employees money is no longer a part of the corporation.
    And personnel records are private by law.

    The difference is the money used to pay public employees is not obtained voluntarily.
    We opt to buy into a company, we cannot opt to pay taxes.

  18. Rincon says:

    But if every single company keeps this information from the shareholders, do shareholders actually have a realistic choice or is it strictly theoretical, not applying to real life? Of course, if we get theoretical, then citizens have the power to vote, giving them the ultimate decision making ability, making taxes voluntary, and of course, we have the right to move to another country, just as shareholders have the right to hold no stocks. Both are similarly realistic.

    You still haven’t registered an opinion as to whether government can compete for the best employees when those employees know their pay information is subject to widespread publicity at any moment without warning.

  19. Doesn’t seem to be a problem. No reports of unfilled government jobs.

  20. Steve says:

    Private money is private. Deal with it.
    Investors are far more interested in how much profit the company keeps after all expenses are paid out (including employee pay), except (of course) those filthy rich, thieving, dastardly CEO’s and board members. All their stock is totally public….SEC don’t ya know.

    Historically, public employment offered very secure retirement and that alone is enough to put up with all the irritations of working for a bureaucracy, the paperwork, crappy outdoor working conditions (IE, traffic light repairs in all weather conditions) sewer work…etc. There are some really filthy jobs in serving the public. Let alone police and fire. Public disclosure is a minor, known in advance, minor thing. (I know from experience. I almost landed a job with METRO)
    All along, it has been that secure retirement the private sector lacks. If a company goes out of business, there goes the pension. (hence 401k and the rest, you keep the money not the company) In Europe, if the company goes, your pension is zero, nada, nilch. At least here he have the PBGC, which will fill in a (small) portion of a pension in case of a company failure.

    So, public employment is desirable for the retirement. As it should be. And as I have stated, once paid, the employee’s pay becomes private. PERS needs to divulge only that money which is directly transferred from public revenues then distributed to retiree’s. Not money first transferred to an employee.

  21. Rincon says:

    “Doesn’t seem to be a problem. No reports of unfilled government jobs”
    If the critical criterion is whether or not all jobs are filled, then using identical logic, I guess I’ll claim that we should to pay all corporate officers minimum wage as there is no shortage of applicants and probably never would be.

    Same old double standard. No need to know anything about Trump’s finances, even though the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation has found 652 potential conflicts of interest, https://trumpconflicts.sunlightfoundation.com/
    but by God, you want to be sure that the pay scale of every government janitor becomes public knowledge.

    I would consider it to be a major threat to the smooth operation of my business if I was forced to do the same thing that you advocate for governments, but somehow, you see no harm in it.

    “Investors are far more interested in how much profit the company keeps after all expenses are paid out …” So are you claiming that the owners of corporations have no desire for the same information that the owners of our governments need so desperately?

  22. Anonymous says:

    No…investors….

    Reading is fundamental.

  23. Steve says:

    It’s a moot discussion as Nevada law has (apparently) been decided, pissing off everyone with any opinion.
    Oh well, if no one is OK with it, then it must be the most sensible outcome….

    smh.

  24. Rincon says:

    Sorry, Steve. I’m missing something here. Are you saying that investors are not the owners of corporations?

    I like your statement that if nobody likes it, then it must be the most sensible outcome. It’s often true, albeit a little depressing. It is sensible that any law needs teeth.

  25. Anonymous says:

    There are various categories of stock.

    Some have no voting rights.

  26. Anonymous says:

    I’m shocked, shocked that there has been zero mention on these pages of the Trump administrations outrageous effort to keep us from knowing what it has been dumping on the American people!

    So much written here (during democratic administrations) about how heinous all these efforts to keep the taxpayers from finding out what their tax dollars are going to pay for and how we probably need to storm the Bastille to stop the bastards from destroying our “beloved republic” and how the founding fathers, God bless each and every one of them, are rolling over in their graves in shame and anger because of what the kleptocrats, and sinners in “big gov’ment” are doing to turn this country into a tyrannous dictatorship.

    And yet, here, crickets. Its really a damn shame.

    “If it weren’t for the public records law, scandal-plagued Scott Pruitt might still be running the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Spending records and other public documents released to conservation groups under the Freedom of Information Act revealed a litany of Pruitt scandals ― from his $43,000 private phone booth to his unethical attempt to leverage his position to land his wife a job at Chick-fil-A. These revelations ultimately forced him to resign.

    But Americans’ access to such crucial information is now at risk. Andrew Wheeler, the new EPA administrator, has signed a new rule allowing him and other political appointees to review requests for public documents and decide which ones to release.

    Even worse, this new blanket exemption from the public records law will make it nearly impossible for people to challenge EPA’s decisions to keep documents secret. If the EPA says there are no records because a political appointee has determined, illegally, that the documents are “not responsive” to the public records request, then the requestor won’t know that the records even exist.

    That makes a mockery of the Freedom of Information Act.”

    https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/452417-epas-new-public-records-rule-lets-trump-administration-pollute-in

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