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EDITORIAL: The Public Employees’ Retirement System needs to comply with the law

Updated February 6, 2019 - 3:44 pm

Bureaucratic arrogance is a common affliction, but Nevada’s public pension officials have come down with a particularly virulent strain of the disorder, the symptoms of which include throwing away millions in taxpayer money and ignoring the state’s highest judicial authority.

It’s well past time for aggressive intervention.

Last month, the board overseeing the state Public Employees Retirement System voted to carry on its failed efforts to hide information about government retirement benefits from the private-sector schlubs forced to cover the $2 billion annual tab. It’s part of a long and disturbing pattern of the system resisting transparency, flouting the state’s open records statutes and losing in court.

To make matters worse, the system’s intransigence comes at a steep price. PERS farms out much of the legal work in these cases to a private Nevada law firm at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. In other words, it cavalierly uses taxpayer money to fight against the best interests of the taxpayers, who have an obvious right to know how their money is being spent.

This latest example of conceitful obfuscation comes on the heels of the system’s most recent failure in the courtroom. In October, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in favor of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a Las Vegas think tank that has fought for more than two years to gain access to records regarding public pension payouts.

It was the second time in five years that lower courts and the state Supreme Court dismissed PERS’ attempts to hide information from the public. In a separate 2013 case, the justices also held that retiree names and benefits must be disclosed under Nevada law, because the information was part of an available “record” generated by the agency.

System officials responded by altering their internal approach to data collection and then arguing they had no duty to comply with the court because they no longer had the relevant records. The October ruling in favor of the NPRI rejected that cynical attempt to befog the issue.

But PERS officials, playing with somebody else’s cash, now plow forward with another brazen effort to avoid following judicial direction and the law, asking the state high court for a do-over.

In fact, this ploy is nothing more than an obvious stall tactic intended to keep state taxpayers at bay until Democrats at the Legislature ride to the rescue. PERS officials are banking that, during the looming 2019 session, state Sen. Julia Ratti, a Sparks Democrat, will revive her awful Senate Bill 384, which would have kept confidential various information regarding state retirement benefits. The measure failed in 2017, but with Democrats — fat on campaign money from public-employee unions that benefit from generous taxpayer retirement benefits — having since strengthened their majorities in both houses and taken over the Governor’s Mansion, its chances of passage next year are considerable.

This makes it even more pressing that the state Supreme Court address this matter in a timely fashion. The proper course of action is clear: The court should reject calls for a rehearing. The system’s brief offers no compelling reason for a second go-round, which is typically granted only when errors of fact or law merit another review.

By quickly dismissing the agency’s arguments, the justices would again be sending the matter back to Carson District Court Judge James Wilson. Judge Wilson shouldn’t hesitate to levy appropriate sanctions on PERS and to set a hard and fast date for the agency to provide the requested information. How long will the Nevada judiciary tolerate this public agency’s willful refusal to comply with the law?

This is not just some arcane legal dispute. PERS is sitting on more than $35 billion in assets and has an unfunded liability of almost $13 billion. This is public money, and the public has every right to examine the details of how it’s disbursed. While the Nevada system isn’t on the verge of financial collapse, public pension programs across the country are struggling to make good on the lavish benefits they’ve promised to retired public employees courtesy of private-sector taxpayers. The push for secrecy and PERS’ aggressive hostility to accountability are designed to preserve the lucrative status quo by kneecapping the forces advocating reform.

It’s time for Nevada’s Public Employees Retirement System to finally respect the law. And rather than cravenly cave to agency pressure to circumvent a series of court rulings by approving a bill to restrict taxpayer access to vital information, Nevada lawmakers should see PERS’ intentional effort to defy the courts as a reason to approve strict penalties for those individuals and agencies that actively and deliberately refuse to obey state public records statutes. Such a measure offers the most promising cure for severe bureaucratic arrogance.

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