SANTA FE, N.M. - Voters booted Republican Dan Foley from office after a decade in the New Mexico Legislature, and within months he began collecting taxpayer-financed pension benefits — even though he was only 39 years old.
By the time he turns 67 and qualifies for full Social Security benefits, Foley will have received nearly $450,000 in pension payments in exchange for the $5,000 he contributed to the plan while serving in the state House of Representatives.
New Mexico's unique and generous legislative retirement program has raised questions as lawmakers have trimmed pension benefits for some government workers, yet resisted scaling back their own program.
"Pensions are for people when you are old and are not able to earn a living anymore," said former Rep. Dennis Kintigh, a Roswell Republican who pushed unsuccessfully last year to establish a minimum retirement age of 62 for legislators.
New Mexico is the only state in the nation where lawmakers don't receive a salary, but collect a pension. Supporters say the pension partly compensates lawmakers for their unsalaried work and offers a financial incentive for legislators to leave office rather than cling to power as career politicians. The job is supposed to be part time, but lawmakers regularly devote long hours to their duties attending legislative sessions and committee meetings.
Legislators can receive retirement benefits at any age after leaving office provided they've served 10 years. That allowed Foley to begin collecting retirement checks in 2009 even though he was in the prime of his life.
"At the end of the day, we paid money into it. It was a retirement plan that was available," said Foley, a Rio Rancho insurance agent who represented a Roswell-area district. "We signed up for and took advantage of the opportunity that was there for it."
The Legislature's pension plan differs significantly from what's offered to other public employees in New Mexico.
No teacher or state worker could begin receiving a retirement check at age 39, like Foley, after only a decade on the job. A state agency employee would need to work 25 years before retiring with full benefits at any age.
Legislators also contribute far less into their pensions than other public employees. For every $1 that legislators paid into the program in 2012, taxpayers contributed $43. In contrast, taxpayers put in $1.12 into the pension system for state and local government workers for every $1 contributed by employees
"Given the generous taxpayer-funded benefits these pension plans generate, I have long believed that legislative member contributions are woefully inadequate," GOP Gov. Susana Martinez said in vetoing a measure last month that would have allowed former or current legislators to participate in the retirement system after missing enrollment deadlines — years ago in some cases.
Instead of an annual salary, New Mexico lawmakers receive a daily expense allowance — currently $154 but it varies from year to year — while in session in Santa Fe or attending committee meetings in other communities. Legislative sessions last 30 days in even-numbered years; 60 days in odd-numbered years.
The legislative pension is tied to that per diem rate and a lawmaker's years of service. Pension contributions and benefits for public employees are based on their salaries and how long they worked for the government.
An unsalaried 65-year-old legislator retiring after serving five years would currently qualify for an annual pension of $5,082. A state employee retiring at the same age and five years of service would need an average salary of almost $34,000 to collect the same pension.
New Mexico isn't alone, however, in having generous retirement plans for legislators. Although eligibility and benefits vary widely among the 40 states offering pensions to their lawmakers, a few states stand out for allowing legislators to inflate their earnings that will be used to calculate retirement benefits.
In Texas, lawmakers tie their pensions to the salary of a district judge earning $125,000 rather than the $7,200 annual legislative salary. And it's possible for long-serving lawmakers to receive pension benefits up to that salary of $125,000. Legislators also can collect their pension checks while still in office, but the state keeps it confidential who's taking advantage of that provision.
The Texas plan, without doubt, is sweeter than what's available in New Mexico.
A Texas lawmaker can start collecting benefits at age 50 after serving 12 years, and currently would receive about $34,500 a year. A 12-year veteran of the New Mexico Legislature, regardless of age, would qualify for a yearly pension of about $12,197 after leaving office today.
In another example, a rank-and-file Kansas lawmaker whose salary is $7,979 for the 90-day legislative session can end up having earnings of nearly $86,000 for determining a pension. Legislators can count expense payments along with their base salary and annualize what they receive. A legislator could earn an annual pension of $15,019 after retiring with 10 years of service at age 62, according to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.
In New Mexico, more than 30 former legislators and their survivors receive higher pensions than Foley, according to records of the Public Employees Retirement Association.
Former Democratic Senate leader Manny Aragon, who's serving a federal prison sentence for a kickback scheme in the construction of an Albuquerque courthouse, collects yearly legislative retirement benefits of $27,311. His pension payments total $204,000 since 2005.
Foley's yearly pension benefits are $13,254 currently. He averaged about $16,400 in expense payments during his last two years in the Legislature, according to state records, but his pension will exceed that amount in about a decade because of the compounding effect of cost-of-living adjustments.
"Should taxpayers be funding that? That's a tough question because we don't make anything as a legislator," said Foley. "I could tell you that I spent just thousands of dollars a year when I was in the Legislature, whether it was doing constituent services, whether it was time, whether it was resources that I spent doing the things I had to do to be in the Legislature for nothing in return. We know that when we sign up. So I am not crying in my milk telling you this is the way it is."
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