SANTA FE, N.M. — A proposal to establish a minimum retirement age for New Mexico legislators to receive a taxpayer-funded pension won the endorsement of a legislative study panel Thursday but likely faces an uphill battle in next year's legislative session.
A measure by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, a first-term Albuquerque Democrat, would require a lawmaker to reach at least age 55 before collecting pension benefits after leaving office.
Under current law, legislators can receive retirement benefits at any age after leaving office, provided they've served 10 years. They can collect retirement benefits at 65 if they were in office for five years.
Candelaria's proposal was endorsed by the Legislature's Investments and Pension Oversight Committee, which agreed to introduce it in the legislative session that convenes in January.
Past efforts to trim legislative pension benefits have run into trouble, however. A proposal for a minimum legislative retirement age of 62 died in last year's session.
"I hope mine has some legs to it as a sort of middle-ground approach," Candelaria said in an interview after the committee hearing. "If we're going to have this system that people think is needed, it should at least be fair and it should at least contemplate these kinds of situations where the benefit may be a little too generous."
Candelaria, who isn't participating in the legislative pension plan, said he could have started collecting a pension at age 36 if he left office after serving 10 years. He would have qualified for a pension of about $14,000 a year. That would have cost taxpayers about $560,000 by the time he reached age 80.
But with a minimum retirement age of 55 before receiving benefits, Candelaria said, taxpayers would save more than $175,000 in cumulative pension payments.
As proposed, Candelaria said, the minimum retirement age would apply to future lawmakers and only those current members who haven't served at least five years. That means the measure has the potential of applying to at least a fourth of the current 112 House and Senate members.
Another legislator, Rep. Miguel Garcia, an Albuquerque Democrat, abandoned plans to push for legislative pension changes after his proposal ran into strong opposition from committee members Thursday.
Garcia had suggested eliminating cost-of-living adjustments for legislative pensions — including current retirees — and scrapping the retirement system for future lawmakers — those elected starting in 2016.
Garcia had planned to ask for the committee's endorsement of his proposal, but said he dropped that after seeing there was little chance it would have the support of a majority of members.
Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Questa Democrat, called the current pension system a "small perk" for legislators, who don't receive a salary.
Instead of an annual salary, New Mexico lawmakers receive a daily expense allowance — $154 when lawmakers met earlier this year — while in session in Santa Fe or attending committee meetings in other communities.