LAS VEGAS — Today's ruling by the Nevada Supreme Court — upholding the public's right to know in the face of resistance by the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System — is a welcome victory for public accountability, said Steven Miller, NPRI's vice president for policy.
Nevertheless, he added, it appears unlikely that the PERS fight against transparency — and against full public understanding of Nevada's heavy public-employee pension liability problem — will end soon.
"That's because the Court also vacated a lower-court order telling PERS to create customized reports that compile information from individuals' files or other records," said Miller.
The Reno Gazette-Journal had brought the case, asking that NV PERS fulfill a public records request seeking the names of all individuals collecting state pensions, the names of their government employers, their salaries, their hire and retirement dates, and the amounts of their pension payments. PERS denied the request on grounds that a state district court rejected, and then appealed that court's decision to the state's highest court.
"Frequently, recalcitrant public agencies in Nevada still use die-in-the-last ditch tactics to obstruct public knowledge of how they're actually using taxpayer money," said Miller. "And, unfortunately, the PERS record suggests that the agency may well move to that level of resistance."
Yet, he said, it remains “imperative that the public get a clear understanding of the types of pension benefits that are being paid out.
"What happens is that, as long-term pension liabilities continue to increase, Nevada’s state and local governments have to allocate more and more of their budget to retirement contributions.
"And those rising pension costs are starting to crowd out these governments’ ability to provide critical services such as fire or police protection," he said.
"In the past few years, we’ve seen cities from Vallejo to Detroit forced into bankruptcy — and its primarily because they were unable to keep up with rising pension payments for public employees.
"Here in Nevada, we're not immune to this danger — North Las Vegas is facing very similar challenges — and that’s why it’s important for the public to know exactly how pension money is being used."
A recent NPRI study noted that if PERS was subject to the kinds of audits faced by private businesses — Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, GAAP — its unfunded liability would amount to $40 billion. That's about $8,000 for every man, woman and child in the state. PERS instead uses a lower accounting standard that would be illegal for a privately managed pension plan. its unfunded liability would be $40 billion — or about $8,000 for every man, woman and child in the state.
Miller speculated that the Nevada Legislature could choose to weigh in on the matter and mandate that PERS make all of the information requested by the Gazette-Journal publicly available on its website.
"For too long, Nevada PERS has fought its legal obligation to allow the public to see exactly how much public employees are taking home each year in their taxpayer-funded retirement," said Miller. "The PERS system in Nevada allows a lot of abuse, and taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent."
He also said that, on behalf of TransparentNevada — which NPRI publishes as a public service — the Institute will be updating its own requests for PERS retirement-system data, in order to publish in on TransparentNevada.com as soon as possible.
Miller concluded by applauding the Reno Gazette-Journal for its dedicated fight on behalf of public accountability and transparency.