Lawmakers advance effort to pay lawmakers a salary as end of session nears

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Eight days are left for lawmakers to decide whether to ask New Mexicans to vote on what the rest of the country already does: Pay its state legislators.

If voters approve, House Joint Resolution 8 would amend the state constitution to establish an independent commission that would set  salaries for New Mexico’s 112 state lawmakers. But, first, the joint resolution, which already has passed the House of Representatives and a Senate committee, must jump through more hoops: one more Senate committee and a vote by the entire Senate after which it would go to the House where lawmakers would decide whether or not to accept changes made in the Senate.  

It’s a lot as the 60-day session enters its final week, when lawmakers will parse an avalanche of competing measures. But the New Mexico Legislature has shown how quickly it can move when it wants. 

New Mexico is the only state without  a daily or annual salary for lawmakers, although it provides each a daily payment when they’re in a committee meeting or in session,  and reimburses lawmakers for mileage. Some states pay nominal salaries, like New Hampshire, at $100. But most pay much more, including New Mexico’s neighbors: Arizona, ($24,000), Colorado ($40,242), Oklahoma ($47,500) and Texas ($7,200).

Nearly two-thirds of likely New Mexico voters say it’s time, according to a poll conducted in 2022.

While in previous years the idea has languished, this year it has momentum. A week ago the House of Representatives passed the measure and on Friday it cleared the Senate Rules Committee on a five-to-four vote.  But the House’s three-hour floor debate last Saturday and the hour-long discussion during Friday’s committee hearing suggest a robust debate awaits the measure in the final stretch of the session, a period when lack of time hinders legislation even if it has significant support. 

An argument made by supporters at every step has been that paying state lawmakers a salary would diversify the legislative ranks — enabling more New Mexicans to serve. Many state lawmakers are retired or wealthy, or work at jobs with flexible schedules. 

“The joke is, and it’s not very funny, we’re either retired, rich or resourceful,” Rep. Susan Herrera, a Democrat whose district in northern New Mexico, said of herself and her legislative colleagues during last Saturday’s House floor debate. “That’s what people call this Legislature.” 

In submitted testimony Friday to the Senate Rules committee, former Democratic House Rep. Kay Bounkeua, who served one year after an appointment to the state House of Representatives in 2021 but chose not to seek election last year,  said juggling motherhood, a full-time job and her legislative duties became too much and a salary would have helped. 

“I was sacrificing my mental and physical health, feeling inadequate in both the job I was being paid to do and my role as a representative,” Bounkeua wrote. “If you believe that mothers and young families deserve the opportunity to be here, if you believe that people of all backgrounds, including race, gender, class, age and ability, deserve the opportunity to be here, please help modernize an antiquated system.”

One big concern raised by both Democrats and Republicans is how to ensure lawmakers aren’t paid salaries much higher than the average New Mexican. Skeptics worried that salaries could top more than $100,000.

The chances of that happening are slim. 

California pays the highest legislative salary of any state, at $114,877, and its lawmakers work year-round and are full-time, not part time like most state legislatures, including New Mexico’s. The next highest legislative salaries are in New York ($110,000), Pennsylvania ($90,335), Massachusetts ($70,536) and Illinois ($69,464). Like California, they all are full-time Legislatures.

One of the sponsors, Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, responded to that concern on the House floor Saturday by saying that if the voters approve creating the independent commission that would determine salaries, lawmakers would create rules for the commission to follow. 

“Right now what we are proposing to voters is to say yes or no on whether or not we create a commission,” Rubio said. Should voters approve creating a commission, state lawmakers would work on legislation to set up that panel. The debate over that legislation would address many of the questions critics raise, Rubio told her colleagues.

Critics also worried that paying state lawmakers would anger New Mexicans, many of whom don’t distinguish between state legislators and New Mexico’s congressional delegation to the U.S. Congress. 

Constituents ask him all the time when he’s headed back to Washington, Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said last weekend. “Unfortunately, they do not understand what we do.”

Mistaking New Mexico’s unpaid state legislators for the state’s salaried congress people — U.S. senators and representatives earn $174,000 a year in base salary — isn’t uncommon. More than a third of New Mexicans surveyed last year mistakenly believed the state’s lawmakers “are paid a base salary in addition to a daily expense allowance or per diem and mileage fees, while 27% admit they do not know how legislators are compensated.”

The chairwoman of Senate Rules committee, Sen. Katie Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, said Friday that her biggest concern is that there will not be sufficient voter education and that the measure will fail if it is put on the November 2024 ballot.

“The majority of voters already think we get $75,000, Duhigg said, quoting a 2022 voter survey. “It is so easy to kill, this is just greedy politicians who want your money.”

If the measure clears the Legislature by next Saturday, it would go to voters in the November 2024 election. 

If voters approve, the lawmakers would then debate and pass legislation that would outline the composition of the independent commission and any rules it must operate under.

The salaries would become effective on the first pay period in July 2026, according to a fiscal impact report on the joint resolution. An exact cost of legislative salaries isn’t known, but the Legislative Finance Committee estimated the cost at $5.5 million a year for $50,000 salaries for 112 members. 

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