Allow for privacy

Senate Bill 224 makes the names of recipients of pensions administered by the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) confidential. Not secret, but confidential, to protect the privacy of the recipients. But some news reports have used the more emotionally loaded term.

Although we’ve not heard any angry arguments about it at breakfast time at the Gold ‘n’ Silver in Reno or Jack’s Café in Sparks, and although the hearings at the legislature have been reasonably polite, the Reno Gazette Journal calls 224 “deeply divisive.”

We have watched for years as the RGJ and a conservative political group have used lawsuits to try to pry loose the names of state pensioners from PERS. And we have often wondered why they want them. We can imagine a variety of stories about PERS that journalists could tell—comparing state pensions to private pensions, say, or the number of people who have more than one pension from mid-life career changes. But we are hard pressed to know how matching the name of the guy in the basement of the Nevada capitol who microfilms corporate registration documents or the name of the weights and measures woman who checks the accuracy of gas pumps to their pension amounts would advance those stories.

We can, on the other hand, see how the release of those names could injure the pensioners. We recently attended a Democratic Party meeting in Carson City where one of the audience members said, “Everyone here is a senior citizen, and they are preyed on by scam artists. Why put their names out there?”

PERS makes available the kind of information that is useful for journalism—years of service, agency, pension amounts, averages, identification numbers and so on. But producing the names in this computer age is unnecessary.

Nevada Press Association director Richard Karpel seems to assume public workers are out to screw us all: “Hiding the names will make it much more difficult to detect fraud and abuse in the system.” When PERS officials spell out the safeguards, he then argues, “And we’re now supposed to trust that they inform us when they discover the system they manage is being abused? Please.” We get why the conservative groups that sued for the names would take that approach, but those of us who use public employees every day as sources do not see either PERS or state investigative offices as having common cause with those trying to cheat the system.

Having said all that, we do think that some of the language in the bill is poorly drafted. It specifies that certain groups of big shots should not be identified—supreme court justices and state legislators, for example, along with all recipients of pension payments administered by PERS. Legislators should keep the latter language and drop the rest. It’s duplicative and poor PR.

Journalists need to fight for openness for a reason and a purpose, not just openness for its own sake. Unless someone can spell out how journalism would suffer from privacy protections, we urge the approval of the bill.