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Bill would boost legislators’ pension benefits

SANTA FE – New Mexico is the only state that does not pay its legislators a salary.

But lawmakers are able to participate in a legislative retirement plan, and they could see their pension benefits go up under a bill filed at the Roundhouse by two top-ranking senators.

The measure, Senate Bill 307, would also require that lawmakers pay more into the pension plan – $1,000 a year instead of $600 – and would allow legislators who initially did not sign up for the plan to opt in.

It was introduced by Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe.

In an interview, Ingle said the primary motivation behind the bill was to open the door for legislators to join the pension plan who had previously not signed up.

He also said lawmakers should be paying more into the plan, which was more than 137 percent funded as of June 2018. It also gets earmarked funding from certain tax revenues.

Ingle said he was not sure whether the bill would actually increase lawmakers’ pension benefits.

“I don’t know whether it would or not,” he said.

Specifically, the bill would change the date used to calculate yearly pension benefits – from the first day of January to the first day of July.

That could matter because the federal per diem rates that are used to calculate benefit levels typically go up in summer months.

The per diem rate, which is set by the federal government, is currently set at $161. But it’s scheduled to jump up to $184 in March and remain at that level through Sept. 30, the end of the federal budget year.

Based on those rates, the change proposed by the bill would mean an annual pension benefit of $12,144 – up from $10,626 – for a lawmaker who has served the minimum requirement of 10 years in the Legislature to qualify for the pension plan.

“Higher per diem rates will produce higher legislative pensions, producing an unknown actuarial impact to the plan,” said Susan Pittard, the chief of staff and general counsel for the Public Employees Retirement Association, which runs the plan.

There are currently 120 active members in the legislative retirement plan, a figure that includes current and former lawmakers, according to PERA.

First-term lawmakers have 180 days to decide whether to join the retirement plan, and there are currently only four veteran legislators who have not signed up – Sens. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, and William Burt, R-Alamogordo; and Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso.

Meanwhile, the average retirement age for a legislator is just over 64 years, and the average annual pension is $10,824, according to PERA.

The legislative retirement measure is awaiting its first hearing in the Senate Rules Committee.

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