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New Mexico budget has room for worker raises

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The size of state government’s workforce remained virtually unchanged at about 22,700 in the budget year ended June 30.

Meanwhile, agencies diverted or left unspent an estimated $74 million appropriated by the Legislature for personnel services and benefits – money that could have been spent on pay raises or hiring more employees.

The average compensation package, including salary and benefits, for an employee in the classified merit-based civil service system was about $70,000 last budget year, essentially the same as it was four years ago.

On July 1, at the start of the new budget year, state employees received a 1 percent pay increase, their first since 2008. (Certain law enforcement officers got 4 percent.)

Gov. Susana Martinez initially opposed that pay hike but went along with it after lawmakers agreed to corporate tax reductions she had proposed.

State spending is up for the first time in four years, and the staff of the Legislative Finance Committee has estimated agencies will have about $139 million to spend on pay raises, new hires or some combination in the new budget year.

In a letter to Martinez, state Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, chairman of the LFC, urged the governor to consider an additional 1 percent to 2 percent pay increase for executive agency employees. The 1 percent pay hike last month cost $32.2 million this budget year.

Varela, D-Santa Fe, wrote in his letter:

“As a result of the challenging fiscal conditions over the last few years, state public employees have assumed the burden of a number of tough policy actions – including hiring and salary freezes, past and forthcoming increases in employee contributions to retirement, and federal increases for Social Security.

“The 15 percent increase in health care insurance (in July) and another proposed increase (in 2014) will only exacerbate the financial difficulties state public employees now face.”

Varela said a pay increase also would help agencies address problems they are having with recruiting and retaining employees due to insufficient salaries.

Some agencies not under the control of Martinez, including the judiciary, have given pay hikes larger than the 1 percent or are considering them.

Varela said he hasn’t heard back from the governor. Here’s what Enrique Knell, spokesman for Martinez, told me in an email:

“If additional pay raises are going to be granted, they are going to be limited to certain classifications of positions that are determined to be very difficult to recruit, are safety sensitive or are out of (pay) alignment with similar positions in other states.

“We’ve seen some of this with regard to corrections officers, police officers, those who work in the juvenile justice system, and a few other places. That’s an issue we’re in the middle of examining and will address accordingly – in a targeted and responsible manner.”

Knell also cited the cost of a state Supreme Court ruling in May that about 10,000 state workers are owed back pay for raises they should have gotten five years ago.

The justices said the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson breached its contractual obligations when it failed to give union-covered employees the full raises that had been negotiated in collective bargaining agreements.

The decision is expected to cost the state about $20 million in the first year of implementation but far less in later years.

Knell said money not spent by agencies on personnel often goes toward strengthening the state’s budget reserves.

“The federal government and national economy continue to be in a very precarious situation, with federal budget cuts being implemented that have a disproportionate impact on New Mexico,” he said. “We have to continue being cautious.”

As for hiring more employees, Knell has previously said vacancies will be filled as long as the money is available and the positions are necessary.

State Personnel Director Eugene Moser gave his budget-year-ending report to the Legislative Finance Committee at a meeting in Chama on Friday.

The report shows the 22,700 state employees at the end of the budget year was an increase of about 100 over the previous year and down dramatically from 25,700 four years ago.

A total of 2,962 employees in the classified system left government; there were 3,090 hires, according to the report. Classified employees make up most of the workforce.

The average annual base salary for classified workers was $41,850, and the average annual benefit costs for classified workers was $28,107, according to Moser’s report. Benefits include the costs of state retirement, Social Security, health and other insurances, vacation and sick leave.

It took the state an average of 73 days to fill a job vacancy.

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 ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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