January 25, 2022

Committee advances salary proposal for lawmakers

Wikicommons

New Mexico State Senate.

A proposed constitutional amendment that would task the State Ethics Commission with setting the salaries for all state elected officials — from the governor to lawmakers, who are now unpaid — cleared its first committee hearing Monday.

The legislation, Senate Joint Resolution 8, also would change how commission members are chosen, allowing the New Mexico Supreme Court to make two of the seven appointments.

The Senate Rules Committee advanced the proposal 7-1. The lone Republican attending the hearing, Sen. Greg Baca of Belen, cast the dissenting vote but didn’t explain why.

The push to set a salary for lawmakers comes as the Legislature considers a separate proposal to increase the pay of New Mexico’s statewide elected officials by five figures; though, lawmakers aren’t included in that bill. 

As members of the only Legislature in the nation that serves for free, New Mexico lawmakers have long broached the idea of giving themselves a salary. Currently, they receive per diem, or food and housing compensation for each day of work at the state Capitol, and are eligible for pension benefits.

“Our constitution, uniquely among the states, says that legislators should not be paid for their services,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who is the lead sponsor of proposal.

“There’s an argument on the one hand that New Mexico has a tremendous tradition of volunteerism and public service,” he said. “There’s another argument that people are getting what they pay for, and I don’t know that those are mutually exclusive.”

Under the proposed constitutional amendment, which would require voter approval, the State Ethics Commission would set the salaries of the more than 330 elected officers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government every two years.

A fiscal impact report projects a $2.2 million annual cost for New Mexico’s 113 legislators if their pay averaged $20,000 a year.

“The bill may also result in increased salaries for other officials, further increasing the overall cost for implementation,” according to the report, which identifies other expenses, including an estimated $235,000 a year to hire two employees at the State Ethics Commission to do the work.

Supporters of the proposal said it would allow an independent body to deal with the salary issue and also allow more New Mexicans to serve in the Legislature.

“I think it’s insane that we ask for free labor from those who serve in the Legislature,” Tom Solomon, co-coordinator of the environmental group 350 New Mexico, told senators via Zoom. “I can’t think of any other public sector where we would ask people to work for free nearly year-round.”

Solomon and others said they want a Legislature that represents a broad swath of New Mexicans at all income levels. A salary for legislators would lead to more diversity in the Roundhouse, they argued.

“As it stands right now, you pretty much have to be financially independent or have another job that you can take time off from in order to serve in the Legislature, and that’s just wrong,” Solomon said.

Paul Gibson, co-founder of the advocacy group Retake Our Democracy, echoed the sentiment.

“If we’re ever going to recruit and get younger people of color in the Roundhouse, they’re going to have to get paid,” he said. 

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said the proposal is long overdue.

“By having the salary set by an independent body, that will address the voters’ concerns with past constitutional amendments that have gone to them seeking … to have legislators set their own salary,” he said. “That’s been a big concern. They don’t want us setting our own salaries … so I think the independent commission is the key to the success of this and why I think the voters really need to take a hard look when we get this to them.”

Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, called the proposal a “key step to professionalizing and modernizing” how laws and policies are developed in New Mexico.

“We’re going to really expand the universe of people who are able to serve if we do have a salaried Legislature,” she said. “Right now, it’s largely the rich and retired.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.