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PERS uses your money to keep you from finding out how it’s spending your money

The board of Nevada’s Public Employees’ Retirement System just slapped you in the face — while also reaching into your wallet to pay their legal bills.

Over the past five years, both the Reno Gazette-Journal and the Nevada Policy Research Institute, the nonpartisan think tank where I used to work, have sued PERS for withholding public records. Both groups wanted information that included retiree names and their pension amounts. We already know public employee pensions can top $250,000 a year.

PERS lost in District Court in 2011. It lost at the Supreme Court in 2013. It lost when a District Court judge questioned the “truthfulness” of PERS’ former chief in 2014. It lost again last week in District Court.

To paraphrase Donald Trump: PERS has lost so much, you think they’d get tired of losing.

Nope. After District Judge James Wilson ruled last week that PERS must fulfill NPRI’s request for 2014 pension information, PERS’ board held an emergency meeting Tuesday and decided to appeal. Expect PERS to lose again, especially because the Nevada Supreme Court actually strengthened the Public Records Act in its unrelated 2015 Blackjack Bonding ruling.

Not that PERS cares.

PERS is using your money to keep you from finding out how it’s spending your money. It’s the pinnacle of government arrogance.

You fund the government contributions to PERS that are invested and paid out as benefits. And you’re the backstop for PERS when it finally hits a fiscal wall. PERS offers the most generous pensions in the county for full-career retirees and is one of the most underfunded state pensions in the country. And the public has been kept in the dark for decades about benefits that are no longer available in the private sector.

Public employee salary information is public record. But pensions aren’t? Come on.

PERS claims that it’s working to protect member privacy, but PERS’ attempts to avoid transparency have actually put its members at greater risk.

In 2014, a district judge ruled that PERS had to release a document it sends to its actuary that contains all the information requested by the Reno Gazette-Journal. PERS did so. But in 2015, PERS eliminated names from that document and used Social Security numbers as the unique identifier. After making the change, PERS sent a document to NPRI that included no names, but the Social Security numbers of more than 100 current and retired judges.

PERS denied it released the information in retaliation for the Supreme Court’s ruling, but it still refused to release names.

PERS’ only hope to keep these records secret is to change the law. In 2015, nine Democrat senators, including then-Senate Minority Leader Aaron Ford, sponsored a bill to exempt PERS payouts from the Public Records Act. The Republican-controlled Senate didn’t even give the bill a hearing, but Ford is now the Senate majority leader. The public must demand that legislative Democrats protect the public’s right to know.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is great life advice, but it’s not the motto public officials should use when trying to hide public records from the public.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Nevada section each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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