Lawmakers shouldn’t sneak compensation

By Ned Cantwell: State columnist

There he sits, does Bulldog Bill, glowering. Looking every bit like the mascot on the beer can. The governor is not a happy man. The Legislature has done him wrong.

There is, however, just the tease of a wry smile as Gov. Bill Richardson awaits legislative bills requiring his signed blessing.

One in particular has his attention. That is the bill passed by our legislators, in a moment of self-aggrandized generosity, to sweeten their retirement pot. That bill is dead on arrival. “That’s an easy one,” Richardson said of the veto.

Legislator bashing is easy and kind of fun. But like the seventh-grade bully who picks on the class nerd, you don’t feel very good afterward.
Some straight talk: These men and women leave their ordinary lives once a year, for 30 days or 60 days, to tromp around Santa Fe doing the people’s business. To some, that might sound glamorous. Most of us would rather walk barefoot over hot coals.

Most legislators are your basic, good folks, although almost all come back home just a little puffed up with their own importance. This is the result of constant fawning by sycophant lobbyists, staffers and hangers-on who roam Roundhouse hallways bowing to the mighty.

Here’s the thing: Legislators don’t get paid for their service. They get paid a per diem, currently in the $150 range, for each day spent on government business. Sounds like a bunch, but unless you pitch a tent in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and ride a mule to the office, you are not going to retire on this windfall.

That may be why our legislators keep trying to fiddle with their retirement plan. As it is, a man or woman who serves 20 years walks out with a pension of $18,612 a year for life. The tweaking this year would have raised legislative pensions 17 percent, according to New Mexicans for a Fair Wage.

These are the same lawmakers who turned up their nose at a minimum pay raise for New Mexico’s most needy. Go figure.

This year’s pension proposal, much like last year’s, would have tinkered with the per diem formula on which retirement is pegged. Bulldog Bill, who got snubbed on minimum wages, predatory lending and other pet issues, vetoed this one with a flourish.

There may be inequities that have to be dealt with when considering legislative service. Padding an already lucrative and expensive pension plan is not the way to do it.

One former legislator who wishes to remain anonymous because he does not want to be known as a ratfink told me legislative pensions are “absolutely unconstitutional.” He said the constitution stipulates a legislator will receive per diem “and no other compensation.”

So, this memo to our legislative friends: If you want to discuss compensation, let’s get to it. But enough of this back door stuff where you tack pension sweeteners onto other bills in an effort to burden a system that is already suspect.

As it is, the legislator who gets the lifetime pension is allowed to “pass it on” to a survivor when he or she dies.

Whatever happened to awkward retirement lunches, gold watches, and cakes decorated with “gone fishin’?”

Ned Cantwell does not receive a pension. And he is mad about it. Contact him at:
ncantwell@charter.net