The Watchdog submitted a public records request to the Public Employees Retirement Association of New Mexico (PERA) asking for the names of retirees who had retired before age 50 and have a yearly pension of $75,000 or above. The request was denied in an email from Christopher Bulman, Assistant General Councel at PERA, citing New Mexico statute Section 10-11-130 (I) which states, in part: “Neither the retirement board nor the association shall allow public inspection of, or disclosure of, information from any member or retiree file without prior release or consent by the member or retiree.”
The Watchdog got interested in this idea when observing that other states do have public employee pension sunshine portals. Take New Jersey, for example. Governor Chris Christie had a website put up named Your Money.
The site states that “Governor Christie believes the website will help taxpayers better understand public finances, make government more accountable and, ultimately, make an essential contribution to the Governor’s effort to provide top quality services at prices the taxpayer can afford.”
He also wants the public to know that the state of New Jersey faces one heck of a public employee pension tsunami. So he names names on the site and allows the public to view 110,281 public employee payroll records and 276,299 pension recipient records. According to our affiliate Watchdog site in New Jersey, the state has what a reporter calls the “$100K Club.” It’s an elite corps of retired public employees collecting more than $100,000 dollars a year from state pensions. The club had 1,244 members last year, up 28 percent from 2010. The New Jersey Watchdog highlights one police director who retired at age 47 to draw a $115,019 annual pension. On his way out, he collected $376,234 from the city for unused vacation, sick and personal time. One year later, the police director was rehired in the same position at a $120,000 salary. For one job, he receives two checks, totaling $235,019 a year.
New Jersey has good reason to raise public awareness of its state pension obligations. New Jersey’s unfunded pension obligation has grown by 350 percent in just the last five years, accelerating even after a special gubernatorial task force called for reform to be “a top priority.” The panel, created in 2005 by Gov. Richard J. Codey, said “reform of the system should start now,” pointing to an unfunded obligation – the difference between what the fund is worth and what it owes – that totaled, at the time, $12.1 billion.
Five years later, the unfunded obligation has grown to $54 billion as of the most recent accounting, and many of the task force’s top recommendations, including a “no more pension holidays” warning, have largely been ignored by lawmakers.
Over in Nevada, the Nevada Policy Research Institute, found over 1,000 state and local government workers, many of them police and firefighters, making over $200,000 a year when all pay and benefits are counted. The Las Vegas Police Department Assistant Sheriff earned nearly $545,000 total compensation, according to the data provided to the NPRI.
What about New Mexico?
According to Rio Grande Foundation pension analyst Scott Moody, in a policy paper available here,”New Mexico’s defined benefit retirement system is massively underfunded. The pension system reports an unfunded liability at somewhere between $7.5 billion and $22.9 billion.
Of course, this particular study is based on aggregate data sets and projections and not on specific public employee payroll records and pension recipient records such as is available to the public in states such as New Jersey and Nevada.
New Mexico does have the Sunshine Portal – the official transparency and accountability portal for New Mexico state government. The portal allows public access into government spending, budgets, revenues, exempt and classified employee salaries, government contracts and more.
What we don’t have in New Mexico is the official transparency and accountability portal for public employee payroll records and pension recipient records.
The Watchdog thinks we should. After all, a humongous I.O.U. ought not be hidden from the people obligated to pay for it.