March 2, 2023

Advocates for legislator pay, longer sessions still optimistic

Matthew Reichbach

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

New Mexico lawmakers are still hoping to end their status as the only unpaid Legislature in the country before they adjourn for the year later this month.

While a resolution that would do this hasn’t passed either the House or Senate yet, supporters of a paid Legislature and other changes that they say would bring the body into the 21st century are still optimistic about getting at least some of their ideas across the finish line before the session ends on March 18.

“Generally speaking, most legislators are in support of this issue,” Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s the mechanics of it that folks are not sure about.”

New Mexico is the only state in the country where lawmakers don’t draw a salary. Advocates for changing this say it is not only fair to pay lawmakers for the time they put into their work but will result in more candidates running for office and open the door to younger, fresher voices in the Legislature. Critics question whether it would make a difference or attract more qualified candidates. 

“Professionalizing” or “modernizing” the Legislature, as it is known around the Roundhouse, was a much-touted priority at the beginning of this year’s 60-day session. Two resolutions, both of which are constitutional amendments that would require the public to vote on them in the November 2024 election, endeavor to do this in different ways.

House Joint Resolution 8 would create a citizen commission to study the issue of paying legislators and recommend salaries. If approved, the salaries would go into effect in July 2026. 

House Joint Resolution 2 would mandate 60-day sessions every year. Under current state law, sessions run 30 days in even-numbered years and 60 days in odd-numbered years. 

Members of the House Judiciary Committee voted to approve some technical language changes to HB 8 Wednesday. It will now head to the floor of the House of Representatives, where HB 2 is waiting for it. Rubio, who is sponsoring HB 8, said she believes the two will be heard soon. 

It’s possible the two measures could be combined into one resolution down the line, though Rubio said she does not think that’s necessary. Others believe they must go hand in hand. Why, they ask, should volunteer lawmakers have to put in more time and not get paid for it?

“What we would hate is for us to ask more of legislators and still not pay them to do it,” said Michael Rocca, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico who co-authored a study on the issue of legislative pay. 

Rocca and co-author Timothy Krebs both said in interviews Wednesday they see paying the Legislature as a way to improve its capacity to serve constituents and be reimbursed for time lawmakers take away, in many cases, from their jobs and families. 

“The incentive to do constituency work is going to grow, [and] they are going to be better representatives,” said Krebs, a professor of political science at UNM. “It’s not going to be a situation where they check out. They are going to want to hold onto their jobs more and want to do a better job at it. … Their seats are more valuable and they are going to do better work.”

Interviews with a number of lawmakers at the state Capitol Wednesday indicate most are interested in the idea. That doesn’t mean they will all vote for it, but it may not be the partisan issue some people think it is, said Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte.

“I support it,” she said. 

She, like others interviewed, said when she came on as a senator in 2021 she learned that most state legislators fall under one or more of the three Rs — rich, retired, resourceful.

Diamond said she believes if lawmakers were paid, more people would run for office, including those who may better represent the needs of working families with children — rather than those who are “retired or wealthy.”

Rocca and Krebs said while some longstanding lawmakers could be concerned about opening up the field to more competition, they do not think that would be the main reason for lawmakers to oppose the resolutions. 

“It won’t remove the advantage incumbents already have when it comes to winning the election,” Rocca said. “There isn’t much evidence to say increases in salary are going to threaten incumbent chances of getting re-elected.”

Several lawmakers asked about the issue said they did not think other legislators would vote against the bill because of fear of losing their seats.

Anyway, said Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, “I don’t think competition is such a bad thing.”

“I could see some worry,” Diamond said. “If we become scared or take steps to protect our incumbency we have lost focus on what we are doing [for constituents].”

Scott said he had not yet studied the two resolutions but has mixed feelings on paying lawmakers.

“On the one hand, a paid salary could draw more appropriately suited people to the Legislature,” he said. “On the other hand, you could have people paid a lot more than they are worth.”

Krebs said he and Rocca don’t have a good sense of whether the potential to earn money as a legislator would draw people from different economic and professional backgrounds. But they believe it will lead more people to run, even if the salary is not very high. 

“It will diversify the applicant pool,” Rocca said. “It won’t remove disadvantages those kinds of candidates have in winning elections. Advantage will still be with those who are incumbents, are independently wealthy or retired.”

Rep. Tara Jaramillo, D-Socorro, who is retired and supports a paid Legislature, said she believes it will draw younger people.

“We need their voices up here,” she said.

Others put conditions upon their support. Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said he is open to supporting paying lawmakers if there are limits to how long they can serve — somewhere between 12 and 20 years, he said. 

He said he does not like the term “professionalizing” when it comes to the issue.

“I want us to be represented by average people,” Brandt said. “I think we have too few classes of certain people — we have too many lawyers up here.”

But, he added, “If we start paying more people, will we get more lawyers?”

And it’s also true, some say, that many lawmakers and members of the public may be happy with the way things are.

“They think a citizen Legislature is the most beautiful thing on the planet,” Rubio said, describing her conversations with some constituents.

Krebs said it’s possible lawmakers and the public have become accustomed to the way the Legislature has run since New Mexico attained statehood in 1912. 

“I can see someone making the argument, ‘What is the problem here?'” he said.