Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – With many New Mexico cities and counties struggling to staff frontline positions, momentum could be building for legislation that would partially undo a 2010 law that bars retired public sector employees from going back to work while still collecting pension benefits.
Several counties have passed resolutions supporting a “return-to-work” proposal, which received largely positive feedback during a Tuesday legislative hearing.
Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said he’s working on a proposal for the upcoming 30-day legislative session to allow retired law enforcement employees to be rehired without having to put their retirement benefits on hold.
He also said the current system has led to out-of-state residents being hired to many top municipal police department posts.
“Unfortunately, what we’re finding is our younger generation do not want to be police officers,” Rehm said during the meeting of the legislative Investments and Pensions Oversight Committee.
The panel did not vote on whether to endorse the legislation, but several lawmakers said they would support the proposal.
Many New Mexico cities and counties have struggled to hire and retain law enforcement officers, jail workers and employees for other key positions during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In Curry County, for instance, 50 of the county’s 190 budgeted positions are vacant. The 50 unfilled posts include nine jobs with the county sheriff’s office and 35 with the county detention center, said county manager Lance Pyle.
He said reimposing the return-to-work program could allow cities, counties and the New Mexico state government to “build back” their depleted workforces.
State lawmakers banned return-to-work for state employees, law enforcement officers and local government workers in 2010, after the practice – which is also known as “double dipping” – came under fire from labor unions and other critics for straining the state’s retirement fund for state, county and municipal workers and stifling internal promotions. Previously, such employees had been allowed to retire and then return-to-work while still collecting both a pension and a salary.
While most lawmakers who spoke during Tuesday’s committee hearing voiced support for the proposal, Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerillos, pointed out there are also high vacancy rates in other public sector jobs, including teachers and State Parks employees.
And other legislators questioned whether increasing starting pay levels for public sector jobs might be a better solution to the state’s retention issues than allowing retired employees to return to work while still collecting their pensions.
“We do not pay virtually anyone in the state adequately,” said Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos.
Previous attempts – most recently in 2016 – aimed at getting retired law enforcement officers to return to work have been unsuccessful at the Roundhouse, with critics saying the focus should be on hiring younger employees.
But Rehm expressed optimism the bill could have better odds in 2022, saying after Tuesday’s hearing, “I think there’s more traction now.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has called for 1,000 new police officers to be hired statewide in the coming years, has the authority to decide which non-budgetary issues should be added to the agenda of the 30-day session that starts in January.
The Democratic governor has already announced some issues she plans to prioritize, and is expected to solidify her legislative agenda in the coming weeks.
A Lujan Grisham spokeswoman did not comment specifically on the proposal Tuesday, but said increasing New Mexico’s public safety personnel would be one of the governor’s focuses during the upcoming session.
Meanwhile, Rep. Phelps Anderson, a Roswell independent, described bringing back the return-to-work program as a fair solution to a lingering issue that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“This shortage of law enforcement officers is not going to get better,” Anderson said.