PERA elections need more voters

            Have you voted recently in a PERA election?

If you are not a member of PERA, please excuse the intrusion. But you or a family member just might be a member and not even remember.

PERA is the New Mexico Public Employee Retirement Association, the state agency that pays pensions to state and local government retirees and manages the fund from which those pensions are paid.

            If you are a New Mexico state or local government employee, you are a member and you probably know it, but right now that may not be important to you. It will be important later, trust me.

If you are retired from state or local government, you are probably well aware of your membership because that pension is a major part of your income. You retired with a promise of small regular increases in benefits to meet the cost of living, but the increase has been on shaky ground recently.

There is another category: former employees who have money vested with PERA, and who are not yet eligible to receive a pension. For former state employees alone, that is an estimated 13-14,000 people. If you are one of these, you are eligible to vote. You might not have known that.

Legislators are talking again – as they did in the 2021 session – about converting the board of PERA from elected to appointed. That is a complicated but fundamentally bad idea. It needs to be countered with logic about why it’s bad, and with calm reasoning about why the current system is okay. I’m hoping they will postpone this issue until 2023.

In the 2021 legislative debate, it was argued that electing the PERA board is bad because voter participation is low. That’s true. It has been just as low for school boards for a century. We have plenty of problems with our schools, but I have never heard those problems blamed on low voter turnout.

PERA election turnout is low largely because these elections receive almost zero public attention. Candidates run for specific slots – state employee, municipal employee, county employee and retiree. Their primary means of reaching members is very limited exposure through PERA publications. They can’t exactly hold rallies or distribute yard signs because the constituency is thinly spread around the state.

PERA’S new director, Greg Trujillo, told me the rules allow a candidate to obtain a set of mailing labels to send printed material, but that’s expensive. PERA quite properly won’t give out the database of email addresses, because of security and privacy concerns.

It’s been pointed out that PERA board members tend to be from Santa Fe or Albuquerque rather than from the whole state. That’s true, and it might be because — with respect for smaller offices all over the state — government agencies don’t put their financial analysts in field offices. The financial experts tend to be in the large metro centers. A few of the current board members have impressive resumes, exactly the kind of credentials needed for this board.

The number one reason for proposing to change the PERA board is recent dissension on the board. Yes, there has been. Democracy can be messy. We hope much of the dissension will disappear with the appointment of new director Trujillo a few weeks ago.

A state employee position and a municipal position will be up for election in 2022. Nominating petitions will be available in April.

If you are a PERA member, and you believe in democracy, pay attention as we approach the 2022 legislative session. And if you have the background and talent help oversee the staff that is managing an $18 billion trust fund, think about running for that board.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2021

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