Finally acceding to an order from the Nevada Supreme Court, the state’s pension system has provided the public with its first glimpse at the taxpayer-funded benefits provided to retired government employees.
The Review-Journal has reported a limited amount of this information, including who collected some of the highest pension payments last month. That prompted a familiar debate among readers: Why are the nosy media so interested in revealing what retired government workers are paid? And why should the public care about pension benefits?
It’s simple. Nevadans pay for those benefits, and they’re on the hook for billions of dollars worth of promised retirement payments that aren’t funded. Governments are pouring ever-growing sums into the state’s pension fund to reduce that shortfall — estimated at between $10 billion and $40 billion, depending on how the fund’s investments perform over the long term — and that’s squeezing services from education to public safety to social welfare programs, prompting calls for higher taxes.
It’s a heavy burden for taxpayers. They cannot expect to find comparable retirement benefits in the private sector, and they are struggling to save for the day when they can no longer work, yet they are the backstop should the pension fund ever fall short of meeting its obligations. They assume all the risk. Beneficiaries of the Public Employees Retirement System, on the other hand, are guaranteed their pensions for life.
PERS is like any other government agency: It has the power to abuse public resources. Public access to government records helps root out such abuses. PERS had long considered the names of retirees, their benefit payouts and other basic information confidential. Then the Reno Gazette-Journal sued to open those records to public scrutiny, and the courts ruled in the newspaper’s favor.
However, the Public Employees Retirement System of Nevada hasn’t fully complied with the high court’s confirmation that pension data are public records. Per the court decision, PERS must release the names of all retirees, their total pension benefit, their government employer, their hire and retirement dates, and their final salary, which generally plays a role in calculating pension benefits. Thus far, PERS has released only beneficiary names and their payout from the month of January, which can reflect adjustments from the previous year and, when multiplied by 12, may not accurately reflect a retiree’s total annual benefit. Last month, the Gazette-Journal petitioned a District Court judge to compel the release of all the records the newspaper requested.
From the little information PERS has released, we know several elected officials are simultaneously collecting salaries from their political positions as well as generous pensions from their days as public employees; we know many retirees are collecting lucrative pensions while working full-time in the private sector; and we know the system has awarded disability pensions that deserve additional scrutiny.
What else might we learn once we have full access to PERS records and their full context? Are entire government workforces gaming the system? And if so, should lawmakers enact reforms to address abuses? The public deserves an informed debate on the issue — and they can’t get that without information. The court should order PERS to open all its records immediately.