May 24, 2019 - 9:00 pm
As a Clark County commissioner, Steve Sisolak once poured through detailed payroll data to show that firefighters were gaming the overtime system. As governor, he’s likely to soon decide whether or not to veto a bill that would hide similar information.
In 2010, Mr. Sisolak accused Clark County firefighters of misusing sick leave to boost their overtime pay. It was a risky political move. Firefighters are politically powerful and active. But Mr. Sisolak, as a member of the County Commission, didn’t make the accusation rashly. He had evidence that firefighter sick leave was out of control.
As the Review-Journal reported at the time, one firefighter “took 48 days of paid sick leave in 2009.” Because firefighters work 24-hour shifts, they work 10 shifts a month. That firefighter was “sick” for almost five months of work, but never missed more than three shifts in a row, which would have necessitated a doctor’s note. He also worked 92 overtime shifts, earning $232,000 that year.
But it wasn’t just one bad actor. Around 40 percent of firefighters took at least 10 sick days in 2009. A dozen firefighters called in sick for more than 30 shifts. County officials later estimated the scam cost taxpayers more than $7 million just in 2009.
Mr. Sisolak’s leadership led to public outrage, which spurred reforms, leading to an 80 percent drop in sick leave among battalion chiefs. It also helped supercharge his political career and brand as a no-nonsense reformer.
None of that would have been possible without data. It wasn’t enough to simply examine who earned what. Mr. Sisolak and the public needed specifics.
That’s one example highlighting the importance of government transparency.
Unfortunately, state Sen. Julia Ratti, D-Sparks, has been on a crusade to prevent the public from obtaining this level of detail from the Public Employees Retirement System. Currently, taxpayers have access to retiree names, payouts, years of service, last employer and retirement date.
Her proposal, Senate Bill 224, would have prevented PERS from disclosing retiree names. That passed the Senate in a narrow vote. The bill has since been amended to allow the release of names and pensions, but no other data. That version passed Assembly on Thursday.
That additional information, however, can be vital to uncovering excesses. For instance, a 2015 study by the Nevada Policy Research Institute found many public employees retired with pensions larger than their final year of base pay.
That analysis wouldn’t be possible if SB224 becomes law. In 2010, Clark County firefighters didn’t want Mr. Sisolak digging into their pay and benefit information either.
SB224 appears headed for the governor’s desk. The specifics facing Gov. Sisolak may have changed, but the principal remains the same. Let’s hope he is as committed to transparency in 2019 as he was in 2010.