Editorial: Public employee pensions now shrouded in secrecy

Gov. Steve Sisolak has signed into law a bill that will make it impossible for the public and even elected officials to act as a watchdogs and catch abuses in the taxpayer-funded Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS).

Senate Bill 224, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Julia Ratti, declares much of the information about state and local government retirees confidential. Only the names of pensioners and pension amounts would be public records. Such vital information as the last employer, years of service credit, the retirement date and whether the benefit is a disability or retirement benefit are all confidential.

The bill passed both the state Senate and Assembly largely along party lines, with only a handful of Democrats voting in opposition.

Ironically, when Democratic Gov. Sisolak was a Clark County commissioner, he used public records to expose abuse of county firefighter overtime pay and sick leave. According to the Las Vegas newspaper, Sisolak spearheaded reforms that resulted in an 80 percent drop in sick leave among fire department battalion chiefs.

Without the ability to analyze the information made secret by SB224 the public will not be able to tell whether government retirees are drawing excessive pensions.

PERS costs $2 billion a year and the taxpayers are on the hook for $40 billion in unfunded liabilities.

According to an analysis by American Enterprise Institute, the average Nevada public employee pension is $64,000 a year, the highest in the nation, while the average Social Security annual benefit is $16,000. Currently more than 1,500 Nevada public employee pensioners are drawing more than $100,000 a year.

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 court case seeking PERS records, Nevada Policy Research Institute’s (NPRI) 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,” Becker wrote.

During hearings on SB224, NPRI’s policy director, Robert Fellner, noted that a tip to California’s fraud hotline resulted in the system recovering more than $200,000, 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.”

Fellner also noted the importance of disclosing whether PERS payments are for disability or retirement. A Los Angeles television station, using public records, 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.

SB224’s backers argue revealing the names of pensioners might expose them to identity theft and fraud. The Nevada Supreme Court dismissed that claim in a 2013 ruling, 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.”

Now, the secrecy is embedded in law and the public is blindered.

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.

 

6 comments on “Editorial: Public employee pensions now shrouded in secrecy

  1. Anonymous says:

    I wonder what you think of this Thomas? Ok for the government to withhold business information that it possesses from newspapers?

    “The Supreme Court on Monday ruled 6-3 against a newspaper seeking records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on stores’ financial data, finding that sharing the business data could harm the companies.”

    The Argus Leader in South Dakota had filed a FOIA request with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), asking for stores’ redemption data on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

    https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/450011-supreme-court-rules-against-newspaper-over-information-request

  2. It is not the store’s private data. It is the public’s tax money being spent. Should be public info.

  3. Steve says:

    The public money being spent is coming from the spenders. Once spent, the money is no longer public, it becomes the private property of the store.
    File FOIA on all the user records in SNAP, from SNAP, not from the private outfit allowing SNAP money in their stores. SNAP is the public portion of this, not the store.
    Unless the contract with SNAP explicitly requires the store divulge the data. Which it does not, or there would be no court battles.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Maybe this will inspire an article Thomas? I know the sort it would have inspired if a democrat were in office and….principles right? Blast ’em!

    “Political appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will soon have the authority to reject public information requests without explanation.

    The EPA’s new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rule will expand the ability of the agency’s administrator and other administration officials to withhold sought-after documents by labeling them “non-responsive,” according to a copy of the final rule obtained by The Hill.

    The rule is expected to be published in the Federal Register as early as Wednesday and will not allow for a public comment period.”

    https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/450169-new-epa-rule-would-expand-trump-officials-power-to-reject-foia-requests

  5. I hope someone challenges this.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Maybe the lawyers for the…”morning newspaper” that were so diligently protecting these interests on behalf of Bundy would be up for it.

    “Justice must not only be done, it must be seen as being done”, as I recall.

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