Nevadans still have the right to see what the government is doing with their money, thanks to today’s state Supreme Court ruling that firmly rejected a series of legal arguments that, if adopted, would have eviscerated Nevada’s public records law.
The ruling means that the Nevada Policy Research Institute has prevailed in its public records lawsuit against the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Nevada (PERS), but the impact extends to all Nevadans, according to Nevada Policy Research Institute Policy Director Robert Fellner:
“PERS argued that public records should be defined narrowly to only include existing documents or reports, rather than all forms of recorded information related to governmental affairs. Had the Court accepted this argument, governments across the state could simply hide information they did not wish to be made public by keeping it stored in a computer database. Thankfully, the Court upheld the plain, statutory definition of a public record to include information stored in a computer database.”
The lawsuit stems over PERS denial of Nevada Policy’s request for records documenting how taxpayer-funded benefits are calculated and distributed.
Specifically, Nevada Policy requested the precise information ruled public by the Court in the 2013 Reno Newspapers decision, simply updated for the then-current 2014 fiscal year.
However, because the Reno Newspapers ruling was narrow in its scope, PERS argued they could lawfully conceal this public information in future years by simply changing its record-keeping practices so that there was no single report with all of the requested information.
But this argument — that PERS could hide public information by scattering it among multiple reports, and then refuse to compile those reports together — directly contradicted binding Supreme Court precedent from a different case, not to mention the plain intent of the state’s public records law.
In Blackjack Bonding, the Nevada Supreme Court addressed a nearly identical situation and held that if “an agency has a computer program that can readily compile the requested information, the agency is not excused from its duty to produce and disclose that information.”
Today’s decision reaffirms that ruling, with the Court finding that when a request for information “merely requires searching a database for existing information…the Act mandates [disclosure].”
Today’s decision was published as an Advanced Opinion, which is intended to provide guidance to courts, lawyers, legislators and the public and can be cited as precedent to help resolve future cases.
Nevada Policy sought the records to aid public understanding of a system which consumes nearly $2 billion tax dollars annually.
These costs don’t just impact taxpayers, however. The past decade’s 40 percent cost hike has left new teachers paying national-high rates, while receiving the lowest PERS benefits of any member in over a generation — an inequity which is expected to negatively affect teacher quality and recruitment.
Need for penalties in NPRA
As this case shows, even when a requester prevails in court, the government is still able to keep the requested information hidden for several years.
Fellner believes that Nevadans will never receive the full transparency promised to them under state law unless government officials who knowingly violate the law face some sort of penalty for doing so.
“No regular Nevada citizen can violate state law with impunity, so why should government employees be treated any differently? The Legislature must impose penalties on government officials who knowingly violate the law and deny Nevadans their fundamental right of a transparent and open government.”
For a complete chronology of the legal events and arguments that preceded today’s court ruling, please click here.
And to learn more about how PERS impacts Nevada taxpayers, teachers and the public at large, please click here.