Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sounded a favorable tone Thursday about exploring the possibility of allowing New Mexico lawmakers to earn a salary. An independent body should take a look at the issue, she said.
Speaking at a news conference just after the close of the legislative session, Lujan Grisham said it was difficult for state lawmakers to do their work because most of them don’t have staff.
“New Mexico needs to take a hard look,” the governor said. “We make it nearly impossible for people to serve. We make it impossible for them to do their work outside of the legislative session.”
A constitutional amendment was proposed during the session that would have called on the state’s new Ethics Commission to determine salaries for all elected state officials and judges. Senate Joint Resolution 7 passed two committees but was not taken up by the full Senate.
Lujan Grisham did not specify which “independent body” she thought should weigh in on the issue.
Proponents of the measure point out that New Mexico is the only state in the country that doesn’t give its legislators a base salary, which they say significantly narrows the pool of people who can afford to devote the substantial time required by the job.
“It discriminates very much,” said Sen. Bobby Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, who co-sponsored the legislation this year. “You either have to be wealthy or you have to be retired or you have to have a very good employer.”
That’s unfair, Gonzales said, because many New Mexicans don’t fit into those categories. The state loses out, too, he added, because people with certain expertise or backgrounds can’t serve.
Legislators do receive a per diem, currently at $184 a day and 58 cents a mile. This can add up to tens of thousands of dollars per year for some lawmakers, especially those who live far from Santa Fe and participate in many interim committees throughout the year.
But Gonzales said that isn’t enough, especially since the cost of renting hotel rooms in the capital city has gone up.
“I used to pay an average of $45 for a room and now it’s $120,” he said. “It has gotten very expensive.”
He added that the current system increases legislators’ reliance on lobbyists because they don’t always have the time or staff to deeply study and review the wide range of issues they have to vote on.
Lujan Grisham acknowledged it is hard for legislators to pass a bill regarding their own pay when there are so many pressing social and economic issues to tend to in the state.
“I’m looking at legislators that represent rural communities, and there are plenty of things that aren’t getting addressed,” she said. “When you have that environment, it’s difficult to put yourself in a position where you’re passing legislation about your own salaries.”
Still, Gonzales, who co-sponored the bill with Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said proponents will continue to propose similar measures in the future — as they’ve done in previous years, too.
And while Lujan Grisham didn’t say outright that she would support a measure like SJR 7, it appears she’s open to moving in that direction.
The governor would not need to support such a measure for it to be enacted, but voters would — because the change would require an amendment to the state constitution, New Mexicans would have to decide its fate at the ballot box.
“I have a favorable attitude towards continuing to figure out where do we go from here,” Lujan Grisham said.