Senate OKs limits on double-dipping retirees

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The proposed restrictions target employees retiring after July 1

By Barry Massey

SANTA FE — Public employees could no longer double dip by returning to work in government jobs with a salary and their pension under legislation approved by the Senate on Monday.

The proposed restrictions target state and local government employees retiring after July 1.

The legislation will not stop about 1,500 state and municipal workers who already are receiving a salary and their pension. However, they will be forced to resume making payroll contributions into the public employee pension fund.

Under a 2003 law, government workers can retire, wait 90 days and return to work for the state, city or county while receiving their pensions.

Critics say the practice has encouraged experienced workers to retire early, which has strained the public pension fund by forcing it to pay out benefits over a longer time. There’s also been a public outcry over some double-dipping government workers earning combined retirement and salary of more than $150,000.

“When we did this double-dipping we kind of took the genie and let it out of the bottle, and the genie has gotten real big over the years,” said Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis, “But what we’re doing is putting that genie back in the bottle.”

The legislation requires a retiree in the Public Employee Retirement Association pension program to wait a year before returning to a governmental job, and their pension will be suspended until they leave the job.

The bill passed the Senate 35-6 and was sent to the House for consideration.

The sponsor of the measure, Sen. David Ulibarri, D-Grants, said the state likely would have faced a lawsuit if it tried to stop current double-dipping workers by retroactively denying them their pension benefits.

Gov. Bill Richardson vetoed a bill last year that would have forced retirees to wait a year before returning to work for the government and allowed them to earn $30,000 before their pension was suspended.

Before approving the legislation, the Senate rejected a proposed amendment to allow double dipping to continue for people hired by small cities and counties for what they considered to be a critically needed job.

A public employees union supports the legislation.

“By stopping double-dipping going forward, the Senate did the single most important thing it could do to shore up the PERA fund. We have lost hundreds of millions of dollars over the last few years because of double-dipping,” said Carter Bundy of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.