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.

Newspaper column: Do not shroud public employee pensions in secrecy

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.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.