Nevada senator defends pension report transparency bill

CARSON CITY — A bill that would make confidential the names of retirees of the state public employees retirement system was heard Wednesday by an Assembly panel after narrowly winning a favorable vote in the Senate.

Sen. Julia Ratti, D-Sparks, said her Senate Bill 384 is meant to find a middle ground between the need for public have access to data about the thousands of state and local government retirees and fears by retirees of the potential for identity theft.

“This bill tries to strike a balance so we can preserve both ideals at the same time, have public disclosure and protection from identify theft,” she said in testimony to the Assembly Government Affairs Committee.

The bill passed the Senate on an 11-10 vote. There was no immediate vote on the measure in the Assembly committee.

A Nevada Supreme Court decision issued a few years ago said select information held by the Public Employees Retirement System, including retiree names and pension amounts, is public if it is contained in a report outside the retiree’s confidential file.

The ruling has resulted in ongoing litigation between those seeking the information and retirees and advocacy groups who argue they are at risk of having their identities stolen if the information is released.

Ratti’s bill would provide some data about retirees, but without a name. Instead, an identifying number would be provided along with selected data points: the last public employer of the retiree, total years of service; retirement date; amount of annual pension benefit paid to the retiree and whether the retiree is receiving a disability or service retirement allowance. Ratti said the data fields would allow the press to conduct investigations into the benefits provided by the system without risking retirees’ personal data.

PERS retirees and many government organizations support the bill. The PERS board also supports the measure primarily to bring clarity to the issue and end the litigation.

Opposition

The Reno Gazette-Journal, which filed a lawsuit seeking the data, has editorialized against the bill.

“This is a bad idea, based upon unfounded fears, that weakens scrutiny of government fraud, abuse and waste and creates a slippery slope to more government secrecy,” the newspaper said April 17.

Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, said the bill would make it impossible to identify cases of double dipping. A retiree who was later employed in another state or local government job would not be identifiable without a name, he said.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute, which publishes public salary and retiree data on its transparency website, also opposes the bill. The conservative think tank has been an ongoing critic of the current defined benefit retirement plan.

At the hearing, Assemblyman Al Kramer, R-Carson City, questioned whether the information that would be provided in the bill would be enough for an analysis of the solvency of the plan.

“I’m for more information, not less,” he said.

But Kramer, a former Carson City treasurer who is a member of PERS, also noted that he does not want to release information that could jeopardize a retiree’s identity for criminal exploitation.

Request for evidence

Supporters were asked of evidence of identity theft resulting from the release of PERS data, which now includes just names and benefit amounts. The only examples were anecdotal. PERS Executive Officer Tina Leiss said she was told of cases where false tax returns were filed using the precise pension amounts of two members.

The 2013 unanimous ruling by the Nevada Supreme Court finding that the data was public if contained in a separate report said in part that the potential for identity theft was hypothetical and speculative.

There are about 105,000 active members of PERS, and about 54,000 retirees receiving benefits based on their salaries and years of service. The system has two distinct groups, regular employees and police/fire. In 2016, the average monthly benefit for regular public employee retirees was $2,813. The average number of years of service was just under 19 years, and the average retirement age was 67.

Contact Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @seanw801 on Twitter.

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