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Legislators take care of their own

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State Senate Bill 114 brings to mind that Beatles tune “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Sing along, if you wish:

“Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends

“Mm, Gonna try with a little help from my friends”

Under SB 114, some current and former members of the Legislature who missed deadlines to enroll in the pension program for lawmakers would be able to sign up retroactively. Also, some ex-members who did enroll could increase their retirement benefits by moving to another plan within the program.

As you might have predicted, the legislation zipped through the Legislature during its 60-day regular session that ended March 16.

The Senate approved the measure 30-3 and the House 54-11. The bill now sits on the desk of Gov. Susana Martinez, who said a year ago that she opposes the pension program for lawmakers. There was no word from her office on what she might do with the measure.

Current legislators who are enrolled in the pension program make a yearly contribution of $600 and are eligible for an annual pension of about $1,000 for each year they served in the Legislature. A minimum of five years of service is required to collect a pension. Lieutenant governors also are eligible to enroll.

For example, a lawmaker who serves five years and makes $3,000 in contributions will collect an annual pension of about $5,000 beginning at age 65, making the retirement plan one of the most lucrative government pension programs in the nation.

Lawmakers have six months after taking office to enroll, but six current legislators didn’t do so.

Under the bill approved by the Legislature, those six would be able to retroactively join by making contributions for past years, plus interest to be set by the Public Employees Retirement Association.

The six are Sens. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque; William Burt, R-Alamogordo; and Howie Morales, D-Silver City; and Reps. Zachary Cook, R-Ruidoso; Sandra Jeff, D-Crownpoint; and James Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo.

Morales voted for the legislation, but Burt and Rue were among nine senators who didn’t vote on the bill.

Democrats Pete Campos of Las Vegas and Michael Padilla of Albuquerque and Republican Cliff Pirtle of Roswell were the three senators who voted against the pension bill.

In the House, Cook, Jeff and Madalena voted for the pension legislation. Five representatives didn’t vote. Nine Republicans and two Democrats voted “no.”

Legislators are required to vote on bills unless excused, and it isn’t considered unethical for lawmakers to vote on legislation that would benefit them as long as they are part of a class that would benefit. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a legislative pension program to begin with.

Stuart Ingle, leader of the GOP minority in the Senate, was the sponsor of the legislation. After the measure’s introduction, Ingle tagged on an amendment to increase each lawmaker’s annual contribution to the pension program from $600 to $700. That amendment is now part of the bill on Martinez’s desk.

Ingle and others defend the generous benefits of the pension program by pointing out that the only other compensation that lawmakers receive is a per diem, or daily payment, for sessions of the Legislature and committee business when not in session. The per diem is now $154.

A total of $2.4 million in state funds is pumped annually into the pension program.

Last year, Martinez signed into law a bill that increased from $500 to $600 the annual amount that each legislator must contribute to the pension program.

“I am signing this bill based on my conviction that legislative member contributions are woefully inadequate in comparison to the taxpayer-funded benefits they generate,” the governor said.

Martinez said she supported a constitutional amendment to kill the pension program.

Such an amendment would have to be approved first by the Legislature, then by voters.

As you might have predicted, lawmakers didn’t approve any such amendment before adjourning last week.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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