March 7, 2019

Are New Mexico voters ready for salaried legislators?

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New Mexico legislators don’t get paid much.

Some might argue that’s just as well.

But the Legislature’s low pay is a bit closer to changing.

The state House of Representatives elected on Wednesday to send voters a constitutional amendment that would repeal a prohibition on the Legislature paying its members a salary. It would also create a commission that would set the salaries for statewide elected officials, such as the governor, as well as legislators.

House Joint Resolution 5 now goes to the Senate. If it approves, the idea would go to voters, presumably in the 2020 election, leaving New Mexicans with the last say in whether to end the era of the so-called citizen Legislature.

Backers argue that the idea of an unpaid group of lawmakers who don’t meet for more than 60 days a year may have been good and well a century ago when New Mexico became a state. But they contend the idea is outdated and has given rise to a Legislature in which many members are retired or have jobs (or wealth) that allow them to take the time to serve. In turn, proponents contend, younger parents and professionals may not be able to afford it.

“Tradition has left many of our communities out,” said Rep. Angelica Rubio, a Democrat from Las Cruces who is co-sponsoring the resolution. “This isn’t about getting paid. This isn’t about benefits and retirement … . This is about who is being left out of this system, who is being left out of this conversation.”

Currently, legislators are paid a daily stipend when attending sessions or other meetings. The stipend is based on a rate set by the federal government that can change from month to month. In January, for example, legislators got $161 a day. The stipend rises other times of year during the tourist season in Santa Fe. Legislators also get mileage for traveling to meetings, but only one roundtrip to and from Santa Fe for the annual sessions. They can also become eligible for a pension plan.

As a result, Rubio argued, it can be financially unfeasible for many working people to run for a seat in the Legislature.

“So many individuals who would wish to participate do not participate because they can’t do it. They can’t afford it,” said Rep. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, a Democrat from Taos who is co-sponsoring the resolution.

At best, it means lawmakers work other full-time jobs that can present a host of conflicts of interest while paid staffers rather than elected officials take on big roles in drafting budgets as well as policy.

And New Mexico is rare among states in not providing legislators any sort of base salary.

But other lawmakers pointed out many New Mexicans would be hard pressed to see any reason to pay lawmakers in a state with what often ranks among the highest poverty rates in the country.

Rep. Phelps Anderson, a Roswell Republican who from a prominent family in the oil industry, said he could imagine what one of the regular cowboys who patronize a local coffee shop would think of the idea.

“He’s gonna say something to the effect of, ‘now rep, you’ve got me the biggest tax increase ever on top of the biggest budget on top of the biggest surplus ever and now you want me to vote you a full-time salary,'” Anderson said.

The constitutional amendment also raises the question of whether serving as a legislator would officially become a full-time job.

House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, a Republican from Artesia, suggested lawmakers discuss the issue during the interim before next year’s legislative session to come up with a thorough plan.

“The public, when they vote on it, it should be a plan that works for New Mexico,” he said. “It should be a plan that provides better representatives that meet the needs of the people.”

House Republicans ended up voting against the proposal. And if the past is any indication, the idea is a long shot. New Mexicans have consistently voted down past proposals to pay legislators.