EDITORIAL: Making public-sector pension benefits public

The Nevada Supreme Court made it clear: The pension benefits of retired government workers are public records. The court’s unanimous ruling Thursday effectively ends decades of wrongful secrecy at the Public Employees Retirement System and finally makes it possible for taxpayers to learn just how much they’re paying the people who no longer work for them.

But the court’s decision is equally unclear on one vital detail: How the public is supposed to obtain that important information.

The ruling upholds part of a District Court decision, which ordered PERS to provide the Reno Gazette-Journal with data the newspaper had requested to report on fund finances and potential pension abuses. The newspaper had requested the names of retired workers, their current pension amounts and other basic information available from every other government entity in the state, but PERS had long declared that state law allowed public employees to vanish from the public’s radar the moment they retired.

This practice was an affront to the public interest. Across the state, taxpayers cover billions upon billions of dollars in contributions to the pension fund. Those contributions are rising to keep the fund viable, consuming tax dollars that otherwise could be used to hire more police and teachers, repair schools, or never be collected in the first place.

But the public hasn’t been allowed to find out how much government retirees are collecting — when some of them “retire” in their 40s to take jobs elsewhere. Meanwhile, governments across the state are demanding ever-higher taxes, while the public is on the hook for promised pension benefits they can’t see, even if the fund one day collapses. By the court’s order, that must change.

However, the Supreme Court ruling vacated a District Court order that PERS create new documents or reports to satisfy records requests. And it held that retirees’ individual files remain confidential, even though all the information inside them isn’t.

PERS maintains the records requested by the Gazette-Journal exist only inside those files. That assertion is unbelievable. Its institutional culture rejects transparency. That’s why it spent agency resources appealing to the Supreme Court to preserve its cloak of secrecy. And now it has a legal argument to further stall the disclosure of its records, or perhaps try to charge the public prohibitive sums of money to gain access to pension data.

PERS Executive Director Tina Leiss wouldn’t comment on the ruling, pending discussions with the agency’s attorney. PERS could easily halt its losing battle and redirect its resources to opening its records. If it doesn’t, it risks further court losses, and plaintiff legal expenses to boot.

If PERS refuses to comply with the Supreme Court ruling and fights the requests of the Gazette-Journal, the Review-Journal and other media and public interest groups, it begs an important question: What is the agency trying to hide?

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