Retirement checks for lawmakers wrong
Wanted: Well-to-do individuals (or working stiffs with extremely understanding bosses) to punch in 45 days a year. Seasonal work involves passage of New Mexico legislation. Requires considerable study, intelligent debate. Ability to huff, puff and posture most helpful. No salary, but promising future for would-be lobbyists. Healthy expense account and best retirement program in the state, if not the free world. Contact your local Democratic or Republican headquarters.
So, here’s the deal. You are a New Mexico legislator who has gone to Santa Fe every year for 10 years for alternate 30-day and 60-day sessions. Each year you have contributed a paltry $500 to the retirement program, or a total of $5,000. You either voluntarily, or with help from the voters, retire from the Legislature.
In our example, you are 50 years old. You live to be 80 years old. Each year you will receive benefits of $10,000 a year, or a total of $300,000. Try explaining that to the counter guy who hands you your Big Mac.
For service less than 10 years the numbers are reduced. But, still, it’s manna from heaven. As this is written, a House-passed bill languishing in the Senate Rules Committee increases the contribution from $500 to $600 a year. Big whoopee. While that might seem a noble gesture on the part of our legislators, about all it does is draw public attention to a financial windfall for those among us who arguably need it a lot less than most of their fellow citizens.
Let’s get real about legislative service. The men and women of our House and our Senate are generally intelligent, diligent people who will tell you that in addition to the alternate 30 and 60 day sessions, they are continually beholden to constituents. They must be accessible, front and center at nonstop community events. They serve on interim committees that require study and travel.
They get to spend January in Santa Fe which is about as much fun as hanging out in downtown Phoenix the entire month of July. Were I elected; my very first bill would be an attempt to change the legislative session from January to May.
For all this Mr. and Mrs. Legislator is paid the handsome sum of zero. When in session or traveling on state business, the state rep or senator is paid per diem of about $150 a day. That might be “profit” if the meeting is being held in, say, Socorro. Santa Fe, not so much.
The situation reduces itself to two basic premises. First is this: Hard work. No pay. Adequate, and in some cases, handsome expense account returns. Second is this: No legislator is forced to serve. Each knew going in exactly what the deal was, loves what he or she is doing, and in some cases is parlaying state service into legal but personal gain.
I am not sure what is “right” in fairly treating the legislator. I am pretty sure what is “wrong.” And “wrong” is most definitely rewarding the retired lawmaker with a fat check every month that not only defies logic but flies smack in the face of the New Mexico constitution.
The constitution says legislators shall receive per diem for service but no emoluments. Emoluments, meaning financial gain. For the record, legislative retirement was challenged by former AG Hal Stratton and found legal by the New Mexico Supreme Court. Also for the record, while the New Mexico Supreme Court was deliberating the fate of the Legislative Retirement Act the Legislature was meeting down the street to deliberate the fate of Supreme Court appropriations. No accusations here. I’m just saying.
There are those who might say, “I’ll bet the newspaper industry didn’t give you a retirement check.” No, it didn’t. And, “I’ll bet you are really jealous of the cushy checks retired legislators get.” Yes, I am.
Have a nice day.
Ned Cantwell is a syndicated state columnist who lives in Ruidoso. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org