January 1, 2019 - 9:00 pm
It appears that Nevada pension officials have exhausted all judicial avenues in their cynical effort to conceal information from taxpayers about the retirement benefits they fund for public employees. But given their well-established preference for ignoring the law, such an assessment may prove premature.
Last week, the state Supreme Court rejected a request from the Public Employees Retirement System to reconsider an October ruling that details of public pension payments are not exempt from state open record laws. It was an easy call.
The case was brought by the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank in Las Vegas that has fought for two years to gain access to information about pension payouts. The ruling marked the second time in five years that lower courts and the state’s highest tribunal had turned away efforts by PERS to keep the data confidential.
But even though retirement system officials have lost in court at every turn, history indicates they will continue to delay and deflect — and potentially seek legislative redress. A top-ranking PERS official at one point even offered misleading testimony to a judge about the system’s ability to produce the data. To make matters worse, PERS has farmed out much of its legal work to a private law firm at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Thus the agency uses taxpayer money to wage war against those very same taxpayers, who have a right to know how their contributions are being spent.
PERS controls assets worth more than $35 billion and has an unfunded liability of about $13 billion, depending on who’s counting. Many public-sector pension funds throughout the country are in precarious financial condition, and a lack of transparency only exacerbates the problem by preventing private-sector taxpayers from accessing information necessary to adequately assess decisions made on their behalf.
With PERS now out of options at the Supreme Court, the matter will go back to Carson District Court Judge James Wilson, who initially ruled against the retirement system in July 2016. The time has come for PERS officials to accept the court decisions and follow the law. The system’s animosity toward accountability and its refusal to comply with state statutes are affronts to democracy and the rule of law. Judge Wilson should quickly schedule a hearing on the matter, make clear that any further obfuscation on the part of PERS officials or attorneys will result in sanctions and institute a hard deadline for the release of the records.