Judge: Teacher pension fund can set salaries - Albuquerque Journal

Judge: Teacher pension fund can set salaries

The New Mexico Educational Retirement Board filed a lawsuit in February against a state agency in an effort to clarify its authority to set salary levels for its employees. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The board that oversees New Mexico’s pension fund for teachers and other educators has the sole authority to set salaries and does not need approval from the governor to change pay levels, a state judge has ruled.

The ruling this week by Santa Fe-based District Judge Francis Mathew could clear the way for salary increases for top Educational Retirement Board officials, as previous proposed pay raises have been blocked by the administrations of both Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and former Gov. Susana Martinez.

The pension fund’s interim executive director, Rick Scroggins, said Wednesday it’s too early to say what the court’s ruling might mean for salary increases previously approved by the ERB’s board.

“We’re pleased with the ruling and evaluating next steps,” Scroggins told the Journal.

The ERB, which manages about $16 billion in total funds, filed a lawsuit in February in an attempt to clarify who has the legal authority to set salary levels for the pension fund, Scroggins said.

That came after the Martinez administration blocked pay raises for several top ERB officials in 2018, including a proposed increase from $165,000 to $240,000 per year for the pension fund’s then-director, Jan Goodwin. Goodwin left the state this year for a new job in New Hampshire and filed a federal lawsuit over pay inequity issues.

A subsequent proposal to increase the salary of the retirement system’s chief investment officer, Bob Jacksha, was stalled last year by the state Department of Finance and Administration, an agency now run by Lujan Grisham appointees.

The agency was listed as the defendant in the lawsuit, along with Cabinet Secretary Debbie Romero.

In his ruling this week, Mathew said state law and the Constitution gives the ERB the “sole and exclusive duty and responsibility” of administering the pension fund, which includes paying its employees.

Although state government has authority to safeguard the pension fund from erroneous or fraudulent disbursements, it lacks the authority to approve salary increases, Mathew said.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Wednesday that the judge’s ruling is still being reviewed and a final decision about whether to appeal it has not been made.

“We don’t necessarily agree with what some members of the public may perceive as inordinate salaries set by the board for its officials,” Sackett told the Journal.

Top New Mexico pension fund officials already make more money than Cabinet secretaries in the Lujan Grihsam administration – and the governor and other statewide elected officials.

Under state statute, the governor is paid $110,000 annually, while the attorney general is paid $95,000 a year.

The secretary of state, treasurer and auditor are each paid $85,000 a year.

However, pension fund officials are also among the highest-paid public officials in other states, and ERB officials have pointed out other state investment officers in New Mexico are paid higher salaries than they are.

The pension fund is overseen by a nine-member board.

It had roughly 61,000 active members and paid benefits to more than 51,000 retirees as of this summer.

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