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Editorial: Reform judges’ pensions

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New Mexico judges can name anyone they like as a beneficiary of their state pension, and that person can get three-fourths of what the retired judge was entitled to – for their entire lifetime.

A hypothetical case created by Journal investigative reporter Thomas Cole in Wednesday’s UpFront column shows how much that could cost the state – $4.8 million in the case of a district court judge who names a 4-year-old grandchild who lives to be 81. And all this can happen with no reduction in benefits to either the judge when he or she retires, or the beneficiary.

Surely, this couldn’t be what lawmakers had in mind when they set up retirement programs for judges and other state employees many years ago.

New Mexico’s retirement benefits for state employees are among the best in the country. However, in some respects judges and magistrates are treated even better than other public employees. Unlike the others, their pensions’ don’t take a hit if they designate survivor beneficiaries, and when they die, the beneficiaries get 75 percent of the pension amount for their lifetimes.

Amazingly, the beneficiary provision in the judges’ plan was news to the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. Arthur Pepin said the intent of the beneficiary designation had been to provide for the judge’s spouse. Pepin has been the judiciary’s point person on trying to come up with a reform blueprint for the plans, which are insolvent.

District court judges make about $112,000 a year and magistrates about $79,500. That means they are underpaid compared with what successful attorneys make and by regional and national standards. But public employee pension funds are upside down and the state’s retirement plan for judges is in worse shape than the others. The plans for judges and for magistrates have an unfunded liability of about $100 million.

In April, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a pension reform plan for judges, largely because she thought it relied too heavily on increased state contributions.

Lawmakers are likely to make another run at pension reform and they should come up with a sustainable plan for judges that doesn’t further hit taxpayers’ pocketbooks. Closing the survivor beneficiary loophole should be at the top of their list.

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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