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STEVE SEBELIUS: Access to public records thwarted in Carson City

CARSON CITY — Gov. Steve Sisolak didn’t have a big signing ceremony for Senate Bill 224, the way he did for legislation to increase transparency when it comes to the pricing of asthma drugs.

There were no cameras or reporters when he signed state Sen. Julia Ratti’s bill that would make confidential some previously public information about Public Employees Retirement System members. (Under the Sparks Democrat’s legislation, the names and pension amounts of retirees would be public, but the retirement date, years of service and last public employer would be confidential.)

It could be Sisolak didn’t highlight signing the bill into law because it runs contrary to his usual stance in favor of transparency.

In addition to the asthma price bill, the new governor signed a law lifting the veil of secrecy that previously prevented the public from learning who was applying for and receiving licenses to run marijuana-related businesses.

So signing Ratti’s bill — a previous version of which was vetoed by Sisolak’s GOP predecessor, Brian Sandoval — was a bit off-brand, to say the least.

In his defense, Sisolak can say the bill provides for some transparency. (Names and pension amounts are explicitly public.) And he can say that it was a better bill in the end than it was at the beginning. (As I’ve previously reported, the original could have made the names of active and retired employees confidential, linked only to an ID number.) And he’d be right, as far as that goes.

But the very information that makes the PERS data useful to researchers and watchdogs is now secret: What use is it to know a pension amount without knowing how long a person worked for the government? A high pension after a short tenure might be a warning sign. A retirement date is helpful in determining whether somebody may have been given a job just before retirement in order to boost his or her PERS pension amount, which has been known to happen.

Now, that information won’t be available, anywhere. And if you don’t think advocates for secrecy will return in the future to cloak the little information that’s still public, you haven’t lived in Nevada long enough.

Meanwhile, it still appears that Sisolak may not get an opportunity to weigh in on the biggest transparency bill of the session, Senate Bill 287. That bill is being sought by a broad coalition known as Right to Know Nevada. Among the members: the League of Women Voters, the ACLU of Nevada, the conservative group Citizen Outreach, and media organizations including the Review-Journal, the Reno Gazette-Journal, KOLO Channel 8, the Nevada Current, the Nevada Independent and the Las Vegas Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The bill as originally written would establish a right to get copies of public records; limit fees for copying records to the actual costs (not including labor, even for requests that require “extraordinary use” of people or resources); require agencies to fulfill requests as quickly as possible and alert requesters when their requests will be fulfilled; require agencies to assist people with their requests; and provide for civil penalties of up to $250,000 against the agency or its employees when requests are improperly thwarted.

The bill grew out of frustrations that the media and regular people faced when trying to get public records. But it ran into plenty of opposition from those local government agencies, who reported that they already do some of the things required by the bill. (If that’s true, however, shouldn’t it be a small thing to include them in the law?)

Late Friday night, the bill passed out of the Senate Finance Committee with an amendment that radically reduces the fines (amounts would now range from $1,000 to $5,000 to $10,000 for first, second and third violations). It heads to the Senate floor, and, if approved, to the Assembly for more hearings and votes.

But opposition to the bill is still fierce, and passage is far from certain, which is unfortunate because the right of the people (not just the media, but all the people) to access public books and public records is vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy. And while bumper sticker philosophy rarely captures the nuance of a public issue, in this case a button produced by The Nation magazine will serve quite well: “Secrecy,” it says, “promotes tyranny.”

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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