SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – The state’s legislature has a huge impact on all New Mexicans. At the Roundhouse 112 unpaid legislators gather every year to decide how billions of dollars get spent and decide what laws should be on the books across New Mexico. Given the importance of their work, some people are asking: Shouldn’t legislators be able to focus on lawmaking without being distracted by outside jobs?
That’s a key question in the debate to change how the state’s legislature operates. Because New Mexico’s legislators aren’t paid for their work (besides a small per diem and a pension), some worry that the Roundhouse is excluding New Mexicans without financial resources.
“They used to say the only way you could serve in the New Mexico legislature is you had to be one of the three ‘Rs’: rich, retired, or resourceful,” Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil (D-Abq.) said during a House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee on Monday. Now, lawmakers are looking at legislation that could change that.
A handful of Democratic legislators are proposing House Joint Resolution 8, which could lead to a paid legislature in New Mexico. The resolution would let New Mexico’s voters decide if the state’s constitution should be amended to allow the creation of a commission to set salaries for legislators.
The legislation would not let legislators decide their own salaries. It would let New Mexico’s voters create a commission to set salaries. “It creates a commission, an independent commission that would establish legislative salaries for the legislature. It has to go to voters so if you pass it out of the house and the senate this question goes to the voters on whether or not we create this independent commission,” says Representative Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces), one of the sponsors of this resolution.
It’s too early to know what the cost to taxpayers would be exactly, but a Fiscal Impact Report says if an independent commission started salaries at $50,000 a year, the cost would exceed $5.5 million. Currently, lawmakers make around $184 dollars a day for the 60-day session; that equals more than $1.25 million dollars. Offering full-time salaries would increase the budget of this legislative session by more than $4 million dollars.
This isn’t the first time such an idea has been proposed. This time, the push for salaries comes after a University of New Mexico study recommended a legislative salary, “not because of its effects on the legislature, and more because it is the fair thing to do.”
The study, which surveyed 24 (of the 122) legislators, included insight from legislative staff and looked at what other states do, showing that there might be a benefit to giving New Mexico legislators pay. Every other state provides some sort of salary, and paying legislators could decrease legislator turnover, help boost the legislature’s ability to bargain with the governor, and increase the number of “progressively ambitious candidates,” the study says.
Those who spoke in support Monday say giving lawmakers a salary will break down barriers for people who want to serve but can’t afford to leave their jobs. “Currently women, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans and African Americans are underrepresented in New Mexico’s legislature. Many more people from diverse racial and economic backgrounds would run for the state legislature if they knew they could both make ends meet and represent their communities,” says Lan Sena, policy director for the Center for Civic Policy.
Also debated Monday was the role of lobbyists, and whether this move would reduce their influence.
While it is true that other state pays their legislators, not everyone is convinced that New Mexico should hop on the bandwagon. Rep. William “Bill” R. Rehm (R-Abq.) voiced his feelings in a House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee on Monday.
“This is my state. I care about it. That’s why I’m here,” Rehm said. “Do we want people who care about the state? Or do we want paid politicians?”
Rehm also expressed concern over some details in the current draft of the bill. For example, he questioned whether someone who serves on the commission to set legislative salaries should be allowed to run for a legislative seat soon after playing a role in setting salaries.
In response, the bill sponsors noted that they’re open to amendments and adjustments. But the Republicans in the room, Rep. John Block (Alamogordo) and Rep. Martin R. Zamora (Santa Rosa, Fort Sumner, & Clovis), joined Rehm in voting against the resolution.
Zamora noted that he didn’t want to give himself a raise. But the Democrats in the room voted in favor of moving the resolution forward, and since they had a majority, the resolution is on to the next committee.
New Mexico is the only state that doesn’t pay its legislators a salary.