March 15, 2023

Legislative salaries still possible, but extended legislative sessions unlikely


New Mexico State Senate.

By Robert Nott and Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

It was one of the top priorities for lawmakers during this year’s 60-day session: a resolution asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment “professionalizing” or “modernizing” the Legislature.

With just a few days to go, at least one of two proposals appears dead and the outlook of the other remains questionable.

“I’d say it’s dead,” Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, wrote in a text message about House Joint Resolution 2, which would lead to 60-day legislative sessions every year, with voter approval. 

Lawmakers now meet for 60 days in odd-numbered years and 30 days in even-numbered years, which some say limits how much they can get done.

Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of SJR 2, said in an interview this week there were a number of discussions among lawmakers about the measure, and “there are diverse opinions.”

Like Rubio, she indicated the resolution, which made its way through two House committees and now awaits a vote on the House floor, is unlikely to go any further this year. 

While she would have liked to see the resolution pass, she said, “Maybe we’ll do it next year.”

Meanwhile, there is still hope that lawmakers could begin drawing a salary — if voters like the idea.

House Joint Resolution 8, which would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the state to create a citizens’ commission to study lawmaker pay and recommend salary levels, continues to work its way through the Senate.

The proposal is scheduled for discussion Wednesday before the Senate Finance Committee. The chairman, Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said he didn’t know whether it would get a vote.

“We’re going to have a hearing on it,” he said.

Garratt said she remains optimistic.

“We’re still fighting for it,” she said. “I still think it has a chance.”

The bill has stalled and staggered since the House voted to approve it early in March. 

A few days ago, members of the Senate Rules Committee voted 5-4 to move the resolution to the Finance Committee. Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, said at the time she is “100% in favor” of paying legislators but said New Mexico voters may need more time to be educated about the issue before it goes on the next general election ballot.

She said she fears voters will reject it in November 2024 if there is not a massive public campaign to explain and support it. 

New Mexico is the only state where lawmakers don’t draw a salary. Advocates for a paid Legislature say it is not only fair to pay lawmakers for the time they put into their work but would result in more candidates running for office.

Some say it would bring in younger candidates providing fresh perspectives.

Critics, however, question whether it would make a difference or attract more qualified candidates.

State lawmakers do get per diem and mileage reimbursements for traveling to regular legislative sessions and interim committee hearings.  

SJR 8’s fiscal impact report includes some samples of legislative pay scales in other states, which range from $100 in New Hampshire to about $14,000 a year in South Dakota to almost $71,000 a year in Massachusetts and $72,000 in Michigan.