January 30, 2016

Committee advances proposal to pay legislators

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

New Mexico is the only state in the nation that does not pay its legislators a salary. However, a proposed constitutional amendment would change that and allow for legislators to be paid up to the state’s median income advanced from a committee on Saturday afternoon.

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

Rep. Terry McMillan, R-Las Cruces, brought the proposal forward the House, Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee sent it to the House Judiciary Committee with no recommendation.

“Most of us, if not all of us are dependent on an outside stream of income,” McMillan said while explaining why he brought forward the bill. These outside funds could be a retirement fund, business interests or otherwise.

“We bring to this House the potential for significant conflicts of interest,” he said.

He framed his proposal as bringing New Mexico into the modern era.

“We are a fairly small and rural state, but we are no longer a frontier state,” he said.

Most of the legislators agreed in principle with McMillan.

Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, was part of Bill Richardson’s Ethics Task Force a decade ago. He said one of the top recommendations was paying legislators.

“Once you pay them, you have more robust conflict-of-interest provisions,” Martinez said. He wove in the idea of an independent ethics commission. A proposed constitutional amendment for an independent ethics commission passed that same committee on Friday.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said it would help the legislative branch become more of a co-equal branch of government with the executive branch.

“It’s not an equal branch of government, in my opinion, and it’s concerning,” Maestas said. “Not only would we get a better pool of candidates, but we would get a better democracy.”

Committee chair James Smith, R-Sandia Park, said that in many ways, being a member of the legislature is already almost a second job, by answering questions from constituents and going to community events, like Chamber of Commerce luncheons.

“The longer you’re here, the more your constituents get to know who you are,” he said.

McMillan noted that other states have employees in each district, which he said he would also support in the future to help legislators.

The committee also discussed what might be needed with follow up legislation. While the constitutional amendment would outline the basics, there would be legislation to outline exactly how much the pay would be, when pay raises go into effect.

McMillan also outlined possible ways to save money to pay for part of the new expenditures that would be necessary to pay the legislators.

“We’re paying per diem to a lot of non-voting members to attend interim committees,” he said, admitting he was just thinking out loud. He also mentioned removing legislative retirement funds as a possible money saver.

“There are some ways that we could come at this,” he said. “I think it would have to take the form of contingency legislation.”

Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, said that if this passes, then he would have to leave the Legislature. Under his status as a disabled veteran, he cannot receive a paycheck and continue to receive his benefits.

Reps. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, and Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, opposed the motion to advance the bill.