Republicans on a House committee closed ranks Thursday evening to move ahead a bill that would allow retired police officers to return to work for up to five years while still collecting their pension benefits.
The House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee voted 5-3 for the measure on party lines. Democrats opposed the bill for a range of reasons, notably because they said it would hurt morale in police departments and open the way for more public agencies to try to bring back retirees by tapping the state retirement fund.
Albuquerque Mayor R.J. Berry told the committee that the bill would help his police department and many others across the state solve staffing shortages without reducing the Public Employees Retirement Association fund.
Berry and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, cited an actuarial study paid for by Albuquerque showing that the fund wouldn’t be depleted by police retirees returning to work at departments across the state. One reason for the stability of the fund, Berry said, is that returning officers would pay into it but their base pensions wouldn’t increase. Officers who are rehired for police jobs would continue to receive cost-of-living increases in their pension benefits.
The committee chairman, Republican Rep. Bill Rehm, a retired Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy, accepted little public testimony, allowing each side only five minutes. Rep. Andres Romero, D-Albuquerque, said he was sorry the public was short-changed on such an important discussion. Nonetheless, critics of the bill used their time to say it was a model of bad policy.
Wayne Propst, executive director of the Public Employees Retirement Association, said it is wrong to use a retirement account to try to solve staffing problems of police departments.
Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque police union, said his group had been left out of discussions about the bill. He pointed out that retirees who previously returned to the Albuquerque Police Department successfully sued for age discrimination after being assigned to line duty on the streets instead of desk jobs. The state Legislature in 2010 outlawed rehiring of retirees.
Gorden Eden, Albuquerque’s police chief, said there would be no such problem with staff assignments this time. Albuquerque is authorized to have 1,000 police officers, and the program to bring back retirees could fill no more than 100 slots. Eden said all retirees who come back would work in line jobs and paid $28 an hour. Eden said he already has about 40 retirees ready to return if the bill passes.
Pete Dinelli, who in 2013 ran against Berry for mayor of Albuquerque, told the committee he worries about Albuquerque recklessly reaching to fill the jobs and infecting the department with some rehires who were abusive officers. Albuquerque’s police department is under supervision of the U.S. Department of Justice because some of its officers have used excessive force, including deadly force.
Albuquerque’s city attorney said retired officers would be screened to make sure the ones who return would be good and productive.
Further, Berry said, the bill would help rural departments hire competent chiefs and mid-size cities to add capable supervisory officers to help younger officers. Under the bill, smaller departments outside Bernalillo County would able to hire officers at all ranks.
State Police Chief Pete Kassetas spoke in favor of the measure. He publicly chided Dinelli for saying police departments across the state don’t have staffing shortages. In turn, Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, said she was embarrassed by Kassetas’ conduct toward a member of the public and apologized for it. Kassetas sat quietly, but then turned to a reporter and said, “You didn’t hear any of that.”
Democratic Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, a retired Albuquerque police officer, was absent for the vote. But he has introduced an alternative proposal to help police departments hire back retirees through a different funding mechanism. His bill would tap the Law Enforcement Protection Fund to make lump-sum payments to retirees who return to work, leaving the pension account intact.
Larrañaga’s bill moves next to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.