- Associated Press - Friday, March 7, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Gov. Susana Martinez signed legislation Friday to shore up the long-term finances of pension plans for judges and magistrates.

Under the new laws taking effect in July, judges and magistrates must contribute more of their salaries to their retirement plans and government employers will pay more.

New judges and magistrates - those who take office starting in July - must work eight years to qualify for a pension. That’s up from five years for those already in office.

The judicial and magistrate retirement funds currently have less than three-fifths of the assets needed to cover future pension benefits. With the changes called for in the legislation, the funds should be fully funded or close to it in 30 years.

Martinez vetoed a bill that would have provided the retirement plans with extra revenue to improve their solvency.

The governor said the additional money was unnecessary at this time because of the enacted overhaul. The proposal would have shifted about $3.6 million in tax revenue over three years to the judicial and magistrate retirement funds that otherwise goes to pay for legislative pensions.

Martinez said in her veto message that if the legislative retirement plan has surplus money flowing into it, then lawmakers should consider “exploring how they might reduce current revenue transfers to redirect a portion of this excess funding to other critical state needs, such as education reform, early childhood programs and health services for New Mexicans.”

The governor signed two bills making the pension changes.

Under the new laws, all magistrates and judges must participate in the retirement plans and make contributions. Currently, only about 60 percent of magistrates participate, which has aggravated the system’s financial problems because it means only a small number of workers pay into a fund that must cover pensions for current and future retirees.

The pension overhaul also will restrict the retirement benefits that can go to someone a judge or magistrate designates as their survivor.

Under the current system, anyone could be named as a survivor, including a young grandchild, and the individual could get 75 percent of the pension for the rest of their life after the retiree dies.

The new law would reduce benefits based on the life expectancy of the beneficiary - an approach that would lower the pension for a young child who’s the survivor of a retiree who dies. The beneficiary change will apply to new judges and magistrates, not those already in office.

Also signed by the governor were bills to:

-Crack down on the theft or damage of utility or communications equipment when it causes an outage or disruption in service. A third conviction would be a felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison. Supporters say it will address the problem of thieves stealing copper wire and cables in electrical utility equipment.

-Expand the tests that can be taken by New Mexicans wanting to earn a high school equivalency diploma.

New Mexicans will be able to earn a high school equivalent certificate or diploma by taking a test other than one administered by the GED Testing Service. The company has updated its exam but will offer it at a higher cost and only on computer rather than as a pencil-and-paper exam.

Test takers pay the costs, and supporters of the new law contended that fewer New Mexicans might be able to take the updated GED exam. There are at least two vendors offering alternative tests.


Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

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