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Changes in NM lawmaker pensions proposed

SANTA FE – A pair of new proposals to tighten the rules for New Mexico’s pension plans for state lawmakers hit the Roundhouse on Thursday, stirring up debate on a touchy subject for legislators.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, told members of a legislative panel he plans to introduce a bill during the 2014 session that would impose a minimum age of 55 for qualifying lawmakers to begin receiving pension benefits.

Members of the interim Investments and Pensions Oversight Committee endorsed the measure Thursday, though it still must gain approval in the 30-day session that begins in January.

“At the end of the day, people recognize too good of a deal when they see it,” said Candelaria, a first-term lawmaker who, at age 26, is the Legislature’s youngest member. He is not enrolled in the voluntary retirement plan.

Currently, lawmakers who participate in the most common legislative plan can receive a pension at any age, provided they have served for at least 10 years. The time-in-office requirement diminishes at age 65.

Meanwhile, a different proposal, sponsored by Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, would have eliminated the option of legislative retirement for new lawmakers elected after 2015 and done away with annual inflation-related adjustments.

However, the idea was blasted by both Democratic and Republican members of the interim committee, prompting Garcia to say he might not introduce the proposal during the coming legislative session.

“I think taking one more tool out of the toolbox is not a good idea,” said Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, who said the elimination of the retirement plan might discourage New Mexicans from running for the Legislature.

Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, added that the proposal would be “discriminatory” toward future lawmakers.

New Mexico is the only state in the country that doesn’t pay members of its Legislature a salary, though lawmakers are able to receive a legislative retirement and a per diem payment. The per diem – currently set at $159 – is intended to cover meals and other expenses incurred during legislative sessions and committee hearings.

Currently, each lawmaker who participates in the retirement plan contributes $600 per year, while taxpayers are kicking in $2.4 million annually, according to the Public Employees Retirement Association.

Although minor changes have been made in recent years to the legislative retirement plan, attempts to impose a minimum retirement age have failed.

The legislative plan covers 179 retirees and beneficiaries, according to PERA. It is one of the best-funded of the retirement plans run by the retirement system, with $3.8 million more in assets on hand than future retirement benefits owed.