*Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include a comment from the Governor’s office.
SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – The makeup of New Mexico’s legislature isn’t quite like any other in the United States. It is 112 unsalaried, volunteer lawmakers who work to decide laws and funding across the state. However, new research is fueling new conversation among legislators about if they should change some of their most fundamental rules, including regular pay.
Monday, Rose Rohrer, a research scientist from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico, presented a survey of current legislators that shows some think key aspects of the state’s legislature need to change. Among the ideas: paying legislators, extending how long legislators have to get work done, and giving legislators more power to tackle a broad range of topics.
The study surveyed 24 (of the 122) current legislators this fall. It includes Republicans, Democrats, and some legislators who have declined to state a party, but the sample, like the current Legislature, skews Democratic. It also included insight from 96 legislative staff members.
A full report will be published by January of next year, according to Rohrer. But the preliminary results, presented at a Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee meeting, suggest some changes to how our legislators currently work could be in order.
For example, over 80% of those surveyed said the state’s legislators should receive a salary. Currently, New Mexico is the only state that does not give lawmakers a daily or annual salary. The state does pay a small per diem (per day payment) of more than $100 a day to help cover expenses like travel. On top of that, some legislators use campaign funds to help cover expenses.
Only about 23% of those surveyed said the current per diem covers their expenses. The vast majority (over 90%) of those surveyed said they work unpaid for more than 30 days each year in order to fulfil their duties.
Should legislative session rules change, too?
The survey also reveals that many legislators feel that they don’t get enough time to complete their work. Currently, the state alternates annually between 60-day legislative sessions and 30-day sessions.
A little over a third of those surveyed said a 90-day session would be better. But some wanted a recess in the middle of the session, especially if the session were longer.
Another big change legislators are talking about is expanding the scope of topics lawmakers can address in any given session. Currently, in the 30-day sessions, the Governor by and large has the say on what topics lawmakers can address. The new survey shows that 77% of those surveyed said that limitation should be changed.
“Any governor working for the State of New Mexico, elected by the constituents of New Mexico, has too much power,” Rep. Susan Herrera (D-Rio Arriba, Santa Fe & Taos) said, speaking in favor of changes. “Lobbyists have way too much power. You know who doesn’t have the power? . . . The people who are elected, who are closest to the people.” And as a result of what Herrera perceives as a power imbalance facing state legislators, Herrera concludes that the state’s “system is not fair to the people of New Mexico.”
KRQE News 13 reached out to the Governor’s office to learn if the sentiment is shared among the executive branch. Nora Sackett, a spokesperson for the Governor, called the legislative and executive branch “coequal” and noted that “the Governor is grateful to work in partnership” with the other branches.
Many of the proposed changes and ideas are not new. For example, in 2019, lawmakers tried to pass a bill to create salaries for legislators via constitutional amendment. But that measure died before making its way to the ballot.
Now, legislators are eyeing a constitutional amendment to bring about changes, according to Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Doña Ana). That would establish a citizen’s commission to establish legislators’ salaries.
“We are currently drafting legislation on creating a constitutional amendment that we will be introducing in this upcoming session to not only just address salaries, but to also address how . . . we need to extend our legislative session and also address the issue around staffing for legislators,” Rubio said. “Yes, we absolutely need a salary,” she said, but “we also need to talk about how to be more efficient when it comes to being legislators.”
How much salary should lawmakers receive, if any?
What might a legislators’ salary be? Rep. Joy Garrett (D-Bernalillo) told legislators on Monday that it might makes sense to base legislators’ pay on the average pay across New Mexico. That would put the salary somewhere around $51,000. Or perhaps it would be based on the average salary of a “professional” in New Mexico, which would be closer to 70,000 or 80,000 Garrett said.
But the discussions are about more than just pay. It’s about modernizing the state’s main lawmaking body, according to Garrett and Rubio.
“We also need lawmakers to reflect the people of our state. That results in better policies,” Rubio said. That might mean more working parents serving as legislators, who might put forward policies that would benefit New Mexico’s families,
Some members of the public also spoke in favor of changes. Judy Williams, representing the League of Women Voters of New Mexico, spoke in favor of many of the ideas.
“We support measures to increase legislative effectiveness,” Williams said. “These include compensation that’s fair and reasonable.” Doing so, she added, will help create a more diverse legislature and allow lower-income individuals, people of color, and younger New Mexicans to serve in the legislature.
Senator Mimi Stewart (D-Bernalillo) spoke in favor of changes but noted that there might be challenges to getting the changes actually approved. Stewart noted that in order for the public to approve an amendment for legislative pay, it might have to include language that limits the amount of pay legislators receive.
While many spoke in favor of making changes, including pay, some were a bit skeptical of the benefits. Sen. Cliff Pirtle (R-Chaves, Eddy and Otero) said that paying legislators a salary might not attract more people into the legislative role. After all, he implied, part of what makes the New Mexico legislature special is that it’s made up of volunteers.