SANTA FE – A regular salary and a legislative per diem aren’t the only taxpayer-funded benefits available to House Majority Whip Sheryl Williams Stapleton and other New Mexico legislators who have been both public employees and state lawmakers.
When they retire, they are also eligible for a pension under one of two state-run retirement programs, as well as retirement benefits as former lawmakers.
Most other public employees aren’t able to stack pensions, meaning they can only receive retirement benefits from one state source.
A recent Journal review found that 16 members of the House of Representatives and seven senators are currently collecting pensions as retired public employees and enrolled in the legislative retirement plan. Two of them would receive combined benefits topping $100,000 were they to step down from the Legislature now.
Another seven legislators who will be eligible for legislative pensions have not yet retired from their public-sector jobs.
Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat, is among those. She has been at the center of a lingering controversy for taking paid leave from her job as coordinator of vocational education for Albuquerque Public Schools while serving in the Legislature.
If she retired today, Stapleton, who has served in the Legislature since 1995, would receive an annual legislative pension of about $17,279. That would be in addition to accrued benefits from the Educational Retirement Board that, based on her current salary level and years served, would start out at more than $41,000 a year.
The combined total is less than the amount that would be received by other legislators – both Democrats and Republicans – who are also eligible for pensions for both their legislative service and other public job or jobs.
For example, Rep. Henry “Kiki” Saavedra, D-Albuquerque, a retired city of Albuquerque employee, would receive close to $140,000 a year, and Sen. Cynthia Nava, D-Las Cruces, the retired superintendent of the Gasden School District, would receive more than $110,000 in combined pension benefits if they retired from the Legislature today.
New Mexico is the only state in the country that doesn’t pay members of its Legislature a salary. State lawmakers are eligible for two other forms of compensation, however; the legislative retirement plan and a per diem allowance intended to cover meals and other expenses incurred during legislative sessions and committee hearings.
The per diem is $154 per day, based on the federal expense rate for Santa Fe. A number of lawmakers receive more than $20,000 per year in per diem payments.
New Mexico is not unique in offering its legislators a retirement plan. A total of 40 states have distinct retirement provisions – some mandatory and some optional – for legislators, according to a 2010 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, chairman of an interim legislative committee that studied the state’s public retirement systems, said lawmakers who work in the public sector should have to choose between their taxpayer-aided state retirement or the legislative retirement.
“They get their cake and they get to eat it, too,” said Muñoz, a businessman whose wife is a public-school teacher. “Why should the people of New Mexico have to pay twice?”
Not all lawmakers share that view.
“Is it a double-dipping type of thing? Not necessarily, in my opinion,” said Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, a former state Transportation Department secretary who receives a state pension of nearly $60,000 annually and would be eligible for $17,000 in legislative retirement if he stepped down today.
Larrañaga, who also worked in the private sector, pointed out that the legislative retirement plan – which is not mandatory – was crafted so that money lawmakers contribute into their retirements is augmented by tax dollars from out-of-state residents who lease mineral rights in New Mexico, not from in-state taxpayers.
However, that money would otherwise flow into state coffers, where it could be used for other state expenses.
Currently, each legislator contributes $500 per year to the legislative pension plan, while taxpayers kick in about $21,429 annually per lawmaker.
The formula used to calculate retirement benefits also varies from the legislative plan to the state’s two public retirement systems, the ERB and the Public Employees Retirement Association.
“It’s structured altogether differently,” Larrañaga said.
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, who sponsored legislation that made the retirement plan for lawmakers what it is today, said there has been talk about eliminating legislators’ ability to “stack” pensions, but nothing has come of those discussions.
He also defended the legislative pension in principle, saying that for many lawmakers service in the state’s citizen Legislature is usually in addition to a full-time job.
“They are entirely different careers,” Ingle said.
Retired New Mexico lawmakers can currently receive a legislative pension at any age, provided they have served for at least 14 years. The time-in-office requirement diminishes starting at age 60.
Rep. Dennis Kintigh, R-Roswell, has drafted legislation for the coming 30-day legislative session that would impose a minimum age of 62 for lawmakers to receive legislative retirement benefits.
Kintigh has also proposed making lawmakers pay more into their retirement plans.
Paul Gessing, president of the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Foundation, a think tank that favors free markets and limited government, said the arrangement raises red flags.
While Gessing said he doesn’t blame legislators for taking advantage of two pension plans featuring public compensation, he said it might be a good idea to pay lawmakers more and get rid of the legislative pensions.
“It’s questionable, really, whether legislators are deserving of pensions in the first place,” Gessing said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal