By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
But the youngest member of the Roundhouse — a Democratic state senator from Albuquerque — announced at a committee meeting hearing Wednesday that he won’t accept any retirement benefits from his time in the Legislature unless the current system is changed.
“I’m trying to do what I think is the right thing to do for the state and keep a promise I made to my constituents, which would be that I would be an honest, hard-working and responsible legislator,” said Sen. target=”_blank” href=”http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Jacob_Candelaria”>Jacob Candelaria.
At 26, the first-term legislator could be eligible to receive a pension in 10 years — should he get re-elected two more times by voters in his district. According to pension plan calculations, Candelaria could start receiving a pension of more than $10,000 a year every year until he dies.
“Forty years at $10,000 a year, adjusted with a COLA (cost of living adjustment), we’re talking almost a half-million dollars in taxpayer dollars and that’s money I can’t accept with good conscience,” Candelaria told target=”_blank” href=”http://www.newmexicowatchdog.org”>New Mexico Watchdog. “I owe it to the state to be more fiscally responsible. I think we show leadership in public office by leading by example. That’s why I’m turning it down.”
At least until some changes are made.
The pension plan is now open to all legislators and lieutenant governors in the state, who are eligible at any age after 10 more years in the Roundhouse or who are 65 with five years of service.
“I think we need to tighten that up and ensure that retirement means retirement and the taxpayer isn’t footing a 30-year bill when someone like myself could be working at the age of 36,” Candelaria said. “There are a number of fixes we could do. We could put in a hard minimum age requirement, we could put in a blend of years of service plus age, which is what we do in PERA (the target=”_blank” href=”http://www.pera.state.nm.us/”>Public Employees Retirement Association) and ERB (target=”_blank” href=”http://www.nmerb.org/”>Educational Retirement Board).”
The legislative retirement package has been criticized in the past. Former state Rep. target=”_blank” href=”http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Dennis_Kintigh”>Dennis Kintigh, R-Roswell, tried to establish a minimum retirement age of 62, target=”_blank” href=”http://bigstory.ap.org/article/nm-legislators-receive-pensions-no-salary”>but his bill never got traction.
But there have been adjustments to the pension plan. In 2012, the member contribution was raised from $500 to $600 for each year of service, and a recent Senate bill reduced the cost of living adjustment from 3 percent to 2 percent. Also, the eligibility for COLA will be gradually increased from two years to seven.
The pension plan is funded at 92 percent, which, PERA executive director target=”_blank” href=”http://www.pera.state.nm.us/mainad.htm”>Wayne Probst told the target=”_blank” href=”http://www.nmlegis.gov/lcs/committee_display.aspx?CommitteeCode=IPOC”>Investments and Pensions Oversight Committee, makes the package one of the best-funded plans in the PERA. Probst added that the pension fund should reach 100 percent funding or better within a year or two.
Candelaria, after his announcement, was teased by veteran Republican members of the committee. “Hey, I’m showing that Democrats can be fiscal conservatives, too,” he told Reps. Don Bratton and Larry Larranaga.
Here’s our New Mexico Watchdog interview with Sen. Candelaria:
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