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Editorial: Are 2.5 percent raises equitable or sustainable?

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A somewhat brightening economy will be putting a few extra bucks in some public workers’ pockets – 1 percent more for most of the people who work for state government, including teachers. The raises take effect July 1, when the new budget year begins.

Earlier this year, New Mexico lawmakers approved the pay increase, which will be the first across-the-board raise since 2008.

While it’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of what things cost in 2013, it is a bit of a thank-you to staffers for hanging in there during tough times and a mini morale booster for those who took on extra work as vacancies went unfilled/positions were eliminated.

But some state workers are poised to get larger raises. Last month, the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously approved an additional 2.5 percent for most judicial branch employees. And some low-paid Magistrate Court employees may get even larger raises that could bring them up to 5 percent total. The judicial raises will be permanent but do not apply to some judges’ salaries, which are set by law.

The 2.5 percent pay hike is likely to cause dissension – and cries of inequality – in other departments. And while other state agencies are looking into whether they can afford to boost raises for their employees above the 1 percent, everyone should be asking how the state will pay for this going forward.

The judicial branch is able to swing the 2.5 percent-plus primarily because it has a lot of unfilled vacancies. So is it conceding those jobs don’t need to be filled? And on July 1 it will also get a fatter check to cover its budget – 5 percent over this year’s levels – than the 4.2 percent increase in overall state spending.

It’s fine to give the raises if agencies can do so through greater efficiencies without needing a bailout or extra budget boost next year. But is it a good idea to make the raises permanent when who knows what kind of economic bogeyman may be around the corner?

And it raises this question: What is the Legislature’s role in appropriating money with a percentage in mind to cover all public employees if various departments get a bigger piece of the budget pie and are able to dish out larger portions to their workers?

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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