Albuquerque Journal

Senate committee approves return-to-work bill

Critics argue there are better and more creative ways to bolster depleted staffing levels

- Copyright © 2023 Albuquerqu­e Journal

SANTA FE — A plan backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administra­tion to ease New Mexico’s back-to-work law by allowing retired public sector workers to be rehired while still collecting pension benefits — but only for a maximum of three years — is headed to the Senate floor.

Despite opposition from labor unions, the Senate Finance Committee voted 9-2 on Monday to approve the measure, which is aimed at bolstering depleted staffing levels for many New Mexico state agencies, cities and counties.

Backers said the bill, Senate Bill 124, would impose strict guardrails on individual­s who go back to work, including a requiremen­t they retire for at least 12 months, work for no more than three years and do not accrue additional pension benefits after being rehired.

The program would also expire in July 2029, giving it a six-year lifespan if not extended.

John Ramon Vigil, mayor of Española, said his northern New Mexico community has struggled to find enough employees to fully staff city department­s.

“I could possibly have a fullystaff­ed police department to secure my community” if the bill is approved, Vigil told senators during Monday’s hearing.

But critics argued there are better and more creative ways to bolster depleted staffing levels.

Albuquerqu­e Police Officers Associatio­n President Shaun Willoughby said such issues as low law enforcemen­t officer morale would not be improved by allowing retired police chiefs to come back on board while still collecting retirement benefits.

“This is failed public policy,” Willoughby said. “The public does not like double-dipping.”

This year’s proposal marks the latest chapter in a longstandi­ng Roundhouse debate over “return to work” laws.

In 2010, lawmakers banned return-to-work for state employees, law enforcemen­t officers and local government workers after the practice — which is also known as “double dipping” — came under fire from labor unions and other critics for straining a state retirement fund and stifling internal promotions.

Previously, such employees had been allowed to retire and then return to work, while still collecting both a pension and a salary.

While attempts in recent years to ease the ban on double dipping have been rebuffed at the Roundhouse, this year’s bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerqu­e, and drew support Monday from several Lujan Grisham administra­tion officials — including Public Safety Secretary Jason Bowie.

But two Democratic senators cast the lone dissenting votes against the measure — committee chairman George Muñoz of Gallup and Siah Correa Hemphill of Silver City.

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