We’re now smack in the middle of Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of our great nation’s commitment to open government and the public’s right to know.
Constant vigilance is required to maintain the promise inherent in that commitment — that government information belongs to us, the people, not the individuals we elect and employ to staff the operation.
We were reminded of that responsibility earlier this month, when Nevada’s Senate Government Affairs Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 224, which would make the names of members of the state’s Public Employee Retirement System secret.
The public officials and retired government employees who testified in support of SB224 on March 1 may sincerely believe the arguments they made. But they’re wrong. Let’s examine their claims.
1. SB224 is necessary to prevent retired seniors from being victimized by cybercriminals.
Proponents of the bill focused on the harm that would result from releasing their most sensitive personal information — like passport and social security number, home address, birth certificate and so forth. However, none of that information is, or has ever been, public, and SB224 would not change that.
All SB224 does is reverse the recent Nevada Supreme Court decision that determined that name and pension payout data is a matter of public record. The Court cited both the great public interest in such information and the lack of any evidence that such limited information would cause harm, or even increase the possibility of harm, as the basis for its decision.
This view is shared by at least 20 states — including California, Illinois and New York — that, unlike Nevada, put their pension database online.
2. Public employees earn every cent they receive in retirement benefits and Nevada taxpayers have no right or reason to question it.
State employees are among the rare few who still enjoy defined-benefit pension plans. Defined-benefit plans were widespread back when investment returns were stable and predictable. But as the overwhelming majority of us who are now compensated with defined-contribution plans know, the days of predictable returns are a thing of the past.
Defined-benefit plans provide recipients with a sense of security knowing they will ultimately be paid the benefits they were promised. But there is a cost for that sense of security and it’s borne by taxpayers.
When the investment returns on the money that public employees and the state of Nevada put into the system fall short, it’s the taxpayers who pick up the slack, as they have been asked to do repeatedly over the last decade.
PERS costs are up nearly 70 percent over that period, and for the first time will exceed $2 billion this year. Taxpayers fund most of this cost and they are entitled to information about how the system works, including the names of those they are paying.
3. The public doesn’t need to know the names of public pension recipients to provide oversight of the PERS system.
Hiding the names will make it much more difficult to detect fraud and abuse in the system. For instance, it will help shield public employees who are double dipping — earning retirement benefits from one state employer while maintaining employment with another.
It will also offer a measure of comfort to former state employees who are earning disability benefits even though they’re not disabled, like the many former government employees who were busted only when local news organizations were able to use public information to match a name with a face.
PERS officials assured us during their testimony that their internal systems for detecting this kind of fraud are foolproof so we shouldn’t worry. This highlights perhaps the most pernicious aspect of SB224. It is a slippery slope that would chip away at Nevadans’ right to a transparent government on the grounds that the public should just trust the government to police itself.
Indeed, these same PERS officials have spent years trying to circumvent court orders requiring disclosure, even going so far as to tell the court that their records are so poorly maintained that it would take months of staff time to produce an accurate report of the names and payout amounts of those drawing public pensions.
Now that the Nevada Supreme Court ruled definitively that the names must be released, they moved on to the legislature to plead their case. And we’re now supposed to trust that they’ll inform us when they discover the system they manage is being abused? Please.
Unfortunately, this bill is going to pass unless members of the public raise a stink. If you believe the names of the people whose salaries and retirement benefits you help to fund should remain public, celebrate this year’s Sunshine Week by contacting your representatives in Carson City to let them know.
Richard Karpel is executive director of the Nevada Press Association