The benefits received by retired government employees in Nevada are a matter of public record.
The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) in a lawsuit that reaffirms citizens' rights to access government data and information as per the state's Public Records Act.
NPRI filed a public records request in 2015 seeking the names of government retirees, dates of retirement, years of service and cost-of-living increases from the Public Employees' Retirement System of Nevada (PERS) for the year 2014. The state agency refused to provide the information even though it had previously done so for 2013.
PERS explained that the raw data in its computer system only included redacted Social Security numbers, and that it had no obligation to create a new document to fulfill the request. NPRI then sued PERS in Nevada District Court in 2017. The district court ruled in NPRI's favor, but PERS appealed.
The Nevada Supreme Court ruled in NPRI's favor in a 4-3 decision.
"[S]earching PERS' electronic database for existing, non-confidential information is not the creation of a new record," Chief Justice Michael Douglas wrote in the majority opinion.
"This decision protects Nevadans' right to access information about the conduct and activities of government, including information about how tax dollars are spent. The arguments being considered applies to all Nevada government agencies, not just PERS," NPRI Policy Director Robert Fellner told Watchdog.
"[I]f PERS had won its arguments that it had no obligation to search and extract existing information from its computer database, all governments could simply keep information in a computer database and then deny the public the right to access it on the flawed basis that extracting that information into a readable format represents the 'creation of a new record,' which they are not required to do."
Public access to information about those enrolled in state pension plans, as well as government spending in general, is imperative in order to have fair and just government, Fellner said.
State pensions and retirement plans account for a large, in some instances the largest, percentage of any single category of liability on states' balance sheets. Meeting pension funding, returns on investment and long-term liability targets are proving difficult for some state governments.
These problems, in turn, are taking their toll on taxpayers as government leaders use revenues intended for other purposes or raise taxes to cover shortfalls in state pension funding or payouts.
"PERS costs taxpayers over $2 billion annually – an amount which is nearly half of the entire State General Fund," Fellner said.
Soaring pension costs – which reflect an increase in debt payments, not an increase in benefits – is forcing teachers to pay more into the system, while getting less. This is expected to negatively affect teacher quality and recruitment, according to labor experts.
"That has led to calls for reform from across the ideological spectrum," Fellner said.
“Given systems like PERS are inherently complex, it is imperative that the public have as much information about the system as possible, so they can make informed decisions on one of the state's most important public policy issues.”
NPRI is pleased and encouraged by the state supreme court's decision, but Fellner pointed out that having to go through three years of legal action, including battling in the courtroom, doesn't make for genuine public transparency.
"We would have happily taken the raw data as it exists in the computer system. PERS' entire argument was that they have no obligation to download or extract that data but rather only provide copies of existing reports," Fellner said. "This [the legal] process took three years and many tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs, which is why the Public Records Act needs to be strengthened to include penalties for those who violate it."
NPRI's public records lawsuit against PERS now returns to Nevada district court. NPRI expects to obtain the information it requested eventually, although doing so could take a few months more. NPRI then intends to make use of the data by publishing it on its Transparent Nevada website.
In addition, NPRI is working with other groups to lobby the Nevada legislature to impose monetary penalties in excess of court fees on government agencies that don't readily comply with the terms and conditions of the state's Public Records Act, Fellner added.