Police retention ideas gain little support in Capitol

SANTA FE – Two new approaches to dealing with a law enforcement shortage in Albuquerque – and other parts of New Mexico – got lukewarm responses Wednesday at the state Capitol, as lawmakers continued to grapple with what’s become a divisive issue.

One proposal presented to an interim legislative committee calls for a portion of the money in a state law enforcement fund to be used for retention bonuses that would be made available to law enforcement officers who agreed to stay on the job after becoming eligible for retirement.

The one-time bonuses could range from $10,000 to $25,000 and would be administered by city and county law enforcement agencies, said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, who presented the draft legislation.

“We’re trying to resolve the (officer shortage) without harming the pension fund,” Muñoz said during Wednesday’s meeting of the Revenue Stabilization and Tax Policy Committee.

Although the bonuses would not affect an employee’s retirement calculations, several lawmakers voiced concern that the plan could mean less money for other state programs – unspent money in the law enforcement fund reverts to the state’s general fund – and expressed concern the majority of the retention bonuses might be paid to officers in Albuquerque.

“If we’re going to go into this fund, it should not be directed just to Bernalillo (County),” said Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, before the panel voted narrowly not to endorse the proposed bill.

Albuquerque budgets for 1,000 police officers but hasn’t had that many on the payroll in years.

The officer shortage has been linked to a steady increase over the past five years in Albuquerque Police Department response times.

Meanwhile, a separate proposal rolled out by Rep. Jason Harper, a Rio Rancho Republican, would allow law enforcement officers and other state workers to return to work after retiring and, upon their return, have their pension checks paid into an escrow-type account. They would then be able to collect the money upon retirement.

Committee members did not vote on whether to endorse that proposal, and a labor union official indicated he was skeptical about the approach.

New Mexico lawmakers banned double-dipping, or receiving both a paycheck and a pension, for public employees in 2010, after the practice came under fire from unions and other critics for straining the retirement fund and stifling internal promotions.

Recent attempts to allow limited double-dipping by law enforcement officers have been unsuccessful at the Roundhouse, despite support from Gov. Susana Martinez and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.