March 16, 2023

Finance chair: Lawmaker pay unlikely to pass

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said the chances lawmakers will approve a proposal to ask voters to pay them are “very tough.”

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, made the comment after a lengthy morning debate about the pros and cons of House Joint Resolution 8, which would allow voters to approve a constitutional amendment to create a citizens’ commission to study the issue of paying lawmakers. The commission would also suggest salary ranges for lawmakers, though the salaries would not kick in until July 2024.

Among other issues, Muñoz questioned whether the current Legislature could constitutionally bind a future Legislature to be paid. He also said the resolution does not clarify how lawmaker salaries would impact pension plans for former state employees who now serve as lawmakers. He said it’s possible they would end up “double dipping.”

Other questions came up during the discussion. While some senators were clearly for the proposal — Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said it is only fair lawmakers get paid for their work just as other professionals are — more members of the committee seemed to be against the idea.

They questioned whether the issue was about paying lawmakers or improving the Legislature by paying lawmakers. 

“So you pay me $50,000. Will that make me a better legislator?” Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, asked Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, one of the sponsors of HJR 8.  

“Are we going to get a better Legislature out of this?” asked Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo. He said the resolution’s language regarding the make-up of the commission needs more definition.

New Mexico is the only state that does not pay its legislators a salary. However, the range of salaries for state lawmakers around the country ranges from $100 a year in New Hampshire to about $140,000 in New York.

Wednesday’s discussion led to other ideas to improve, or “professionalize” as supporters say, the Legislature. Several lawmakers said the state should increase per diem payments for lawmakers who have to travel not just to Santa Fe for annual legislative sessions but to a number of interim committee hearings held around the state.

Several senators also suggested the Legislature set a cap on the number of bills lawmakers can introduce, arguing that there is no way they can seriously study and make decisions on so many in such a short period of time.

Sessions alternate between 30 days in even-numbered years and 60 days in odd-numbered years. This year, lawmakers introduced nearly 1,300 bills, filing some before the session even began. Sen. Bobby Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, said lawmakers fall behind in keeping up with bills as soon as filing starts.

“The minute we start we’re already 300 bills behind,” he said.

Others argued that hiring staff for lawmakers to help them deal with constituent issues and study bills would be more helpful than pay.

Several senators suggested it’s too late in the session to make a decision on the issue. Others said the resolution needs more work.

After the hearing Rubio, said she thought she could make some constitutional changes to the resolution if need be before the session ends at noon Saturday.

Asked if she thought the resolution has a chance, she said, “We’ll see.”

Sharer, known for displaying a cynical wit, may have had the last word on the subject when he said to the assembly,  “The Legislature rarely does it for you, it does it to you,” suggesting that a paid Legislature could cause more damage than good for New Mexicans.