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EDITORIAL: Gov. Steve Sisolak’s mixed record on transparency

Gov. Steve Sisolak affixed his imprimatur late last week to a host of bills that survived during the eleventh hour of the 2019 legislative session. Among the most important of those measures was Senate Bill 287, which strengthens the state’s public records statutes.

Unfortunately, the governor and Democratic majority subverted this modest step forward for transparency by simultaneously walling off public pension data. The inconsistency should frustrate advocates of open government.

First the good news.

SB287 represents the culmination of work by a number of groups representing taxpayers, civil liberty organizations and media interests. It seeks to put teeth into open records laws by holding agencies and bureaucrats accountable for stonewalling or ignoring document requests.

The measure met fierce resistance from bureaucrats and government lobbyists — a telltale sign of its value — who almost succeeded in convincing lawmakers to kill the proposal through neglect. But the Legislature resurrected SB287 at the last minute, and it eventually passed with broad, bipartisan support.

The final version of the bill scaled back the potential fines for government workers or departments that willfully refuse to cooperate with those seeking access to documents and records held and compiled by the public-sector agencies that work on their behalf. But any statutory punishment represent progress. A first offender now faces a liability of up to $1,000.

The absence of such penalties has long empowered many Nevada governments to operate on a default setting of obstruction and obfuscation. SB287 bolsters the mechanism for ensuring state and local bureaucracies allow taxpayers, the media and other organizations to peruse public documents and to ensure the state’s government institutions operate as intended.

“When you say public records, people need to know they’re public,” Gov. Sisolak said in April about government documents. “That means the public has a right to see them. It shouldn’t be a game of, you know, hide and seek.”

The governor is correct. He and lawmakers deserve commendation for SB287.

But now the bad news.

Less than a month before giving his approval to SB287, Gov. Sisolak put his signature on Senate Bill 224, the unfortunate handiwork of state Sen. Julia Ratti, D-Reno. This bill keeps confidential certain information regarding retirement data for former public employees. Specifically, it shrouds in secrecy a public pension recipient’s retirement date, years of service and last government employer.

The original proposal sought to shield names and pension amounts from the very taxpayers obligated to fund the multimillion-dollar public pension system. While the amended version of SB224 isn’t as distasteful, the bill as passed still makes it more difficult for taxpayers and watchdogs to uncover abuses and excesses. The private-sector workers forced to pay for these retirement benefits have a right to know where their money is being spent.

At a time when public pension systems across the nation teeter on the edge of insolvency and pose difficult fiscal challenges to municipalities and states thanks to unsustainable benefits and promises, it’s imperative that governments promote an atmosphere of accountability when it comes to these retirement programs. SB224 represents a substantial step backward in that regard and runs counter to the democratic principles of transparency embodied in SB287.

It’s hard to reconcile the governor’s stated commitment to ensuring the availability of open records with support for a proposal pushed by government unions advocating that public pension information be withheld from the taxpayers. Gov. Sisolak deserves credit for signing SB287 into law, but his fidelity to openness isn’t worth much if he’s so easily willing to cast it aside by sanctioning SB224 to curry favor with Democratic special interests.

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