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Sunday, March 23, 2003

Lawmakers' Retirement Benefits Get Boost Without Gov.'s Signature

By Loie Fecteau
Journal Politics Writer
    SANTA FE Gov. Bill Richardson on Saturday let a plan to beef up the retirement benefits of current and former legislators become law without his signature.
    Richardson said he had "agonized" over what to do about the plan, which will boost legislative retirement benefits by tapping uncollected taxes on out-of-state residents who receive royalties from New Mexico oil and gas interests.
    The governor said he "cannot completely endorse" the retirement plan, which will essentially quadruple the pensions of current legislators who participate and double the pensions of former legislators. Thus, he said he was "allowing it to become law without my endorsement."
    Richardson said he thought legislators' old retirement plan was inadequate. He said he had been impressed with how hard state lawmakers work during the just-completed 60-day legislative session.
    Richardson said voters eventually "would have the opportunity to render their opinion" on the fattened retirement benefits.
    Richardson noted that the legislative retirement plan (SB 620 and committee substitute for SB 621) was approved overwhelmingly with strong bipartisan support by both the House and Senate.
    Under the plan, a new formula increases the annual retirement benefit of current legislators to $957, times the number of years of service. So, a legislator who served 20 years would be eligible to receive $19,140 a year. A legislator would have to contribute $500 a year for each year of service, up from $100 a year, to participate.
    Former legislators, who had retired after 20 years, will be eligible to receive $10,000 a year under a separate formula if they retroactively pay an additional $100 a year for each year of service.
    Previously, a legislator with 20 years service was eligible to receive $5,000 a year in retirement benefits.
    The new law makes retired legislators eligible for health care under the Retiree Health Care Act. Legislators would have to pay 100 percent of a monthly premium and a monthly fee upon retirement to participate.
    The bill, in a section unrelated to legislative retirement, removed a $15,000-a-year earnings cap aimed at limiting retired state employees from returning to government jobs and "double-dipping."
    However, another bill (HB 111) awaiting action by Richardson would set an earnings cap of $25,000 a year for retired public employees who return to government jobs.