Senate Bill 224 — the PERS secrecy bill — was recently amended by the Assembly Government Affairs Committee to make the names of those receiving tax-funded pensions public.
Which is good news.
After all, making names confidential was the only complaint members of the press and transparency advocates had with the original wording of SB224.
Unfortunately, despite making names public, the amendment actually makes new information secret — information the bill’s first iteration explicitly made public.
Rather than simply adding names to the limited list of data that is kept public under SB224, the amendment makes the last employer, years of service credit, the retirement date and whether the benefit is a disability or service retirement all confidential.
Making this necessary contextual data secret is simply bizarre. Most of it is made public in other venues already, so it’s hard to imagine any conceivable benefit that would come from ordering PERS to keep this information confidential.
More importantly, it would also undermine the stated goals of bill sponsor Senator Julia Ratti, who previously testified that the purpose of SB224 was to “make as much information public as possible to allow the press to investigate how PERS benefits are managed.” [Emphasis added]
Thus, the bill’s rewrite, while appropriately recognizing that names must remain public, actually increases government secrecy by making confidential non-sensitive contextual data necessary for the public to understand how the system operates.
Ironically, if there’s one person who understands the importance of keeping public the type of data SB224 would now make secret, it is the man who must now decide whether to veto or sign this bill, Governor Steve Sisolak.
During his tenure as a county commissioner in Clark County, Sisolak endured intense backlash, including death threats, for investigating excessive overtime pay and paid sick leave in the Clark County Fire Department.
Throughout his investigation into fire department sick leave abuse, merely knowing the dollar amounts wasn’t enough to determine if the system was being abused. Rather, it was the high dollar payments alongside a lack of corresponding increase in hours worked or calls responded to, that raised alarm bells for Sisolak and many others.
Under the current version of SB224, similar contextual information related to tax-funded retirement payments will be hidden, making public oversight of the system virtually impossible.
As an example, a $25,000 annual pension seems quite modest. However, should such a payout be given to a government worker who worked for only five years or so, the dollar amount suddenly takes on new meaning, and carries a massively greater cost to taxpayers than if the pension was associated with a full career.
By making secret such basic information as years of service and last public employer, SB224 would greatly limit the public’s ability to detect such irregularities or understand the tax-funded benefits they are required to help fund.
The amendment also makes secret whether the benefit-type is regular or disability, preventing the public from helping to detect cases of fraud and abuse. (For a few examples of such abuses, see here, here, here and here.)
SB224, from the beginning, was a solution to a problem that simply does not exist. Despite repeated rulings from the Nevada courts that only information related to the payments of pensions are public records, bill proponents inexplicably believe these rulings somehow also makes retiree’s sensitive, personal information public.
However, existing law already allows PERS — or any other government agency — to keep sensitive personal information confidential. And contrary to claims made by proponents of SB224, no court has ever issued the disclosure of such highly sensitive personal information.
In fact, had the original version of SB224 simply included names, it would have merely reaffirmed existing law and current Supreme Court decisions on the matter.
Instead, SB224 was bizarrely amended in way that significantly alters existing law by making secret most of the limited, non-sensitive information that both opponents and supporters of the bill once agreed should be kept public.
If the Legislature is unwilling to deliver a bill to the governor that properly protects the public’s right to know, he can protect the public’s right to access critical data without compromising the safety of PERS retirees by simply vetoing SB224.
Doing so would uphold the Nevada Supreme Court ruling that made public only the limited, non-sensitive pension payout data necessary for the public to understand how over $2 billion of their tax dollars are spent each year.
Signing the bill, on the other hand, would be in stark conflict with the governor’s past defense of government transparency.