Should state legislators be paid for their work?
They could be if a measure now under consideration in the Legislature makes it on the ballot this November.
Two local legislators, Rep. Kathleen Cates, of Rio Rancho, and state Sen. Brenda McKenna, of Corrales, both said they supported the idea when asked about the proposed bill by a member of the audience at a pre-session town hall meeting in Corrales on Jan. 8.
“We have to do it,” McKenna said. “We are missing out on incredible talent.”
New Mexico is the only state that doesn’t pay its lawmakers a salary, a point of pride for those who herald the wholesomeness of a “volunteer” Legislature. They do receive a $160 per diem for every day they are in session or are in committee outside of the session time.
But others argue that it’s not a good way to set up a representative government, resulting in the exclusion of potential candidates who can’t afford to give up their livelihood to become a public servant. That leaves the Legislature skewed toward well-off lawyers, self-employed professionals and retirees.
Legislators can’t give themselves a salary. It would require a constitutional amendment approved by voters.
McKenna said she also favored a 90-day legislative session each year with strict limitations on the governor’s authority to call a special session.
“It’s all about serving New Mexicans, and we have to do a better job,” she said.
A separate proposal under consideration also meant to “modernize” and “professionalize” state government calls for a 60-day session in even numbered years.
Currently, New Mexico alternates between 30-day sessions in even numbered years and 60-day sessions in odd numbered years, like 2023. The governor has also called special sessions in two of her four years in office.
Cates said a 90-day session would allow time for the Legislature to pause for weeks at a time and allow legislators to return to their homes to meet with constituents. Legislation could be drafted and updated during these breaks and materials could be prepared for presentation.
Cates said there was talk of forming a bipartisan panel to determine what the salary would be. She said the thinking was that it would be somewhere around $55,000 per year.
The matter came up again later when the legislators were asked what could be done to make the legislative process better.
“We can if we have a full-time Legislature,” Cates said.
She added that many bills die simply because they run out of time in the session. A longer session would provide more time to get legislation passed, she said.
McKenna recalled one of her colleagues deliberately running out the clock during one legislative session by filibustering about hot dogs.
The matter came up one more time at the end of the town hall when two village councilors were asked their opinion.
Village Councilor Bill Woldman floated the idea of two-year sessions, similar to what the federal government does. That way, bills have a better chance of working through the committee process and don’t have to get reintroduced each year, if they stall or time runs out.
Councilor Rick Miera, who served more than 20 years in the House, including a stint as House Majority Leader, favored the idea but said voters have to be on board with the idea.
“Legislators can’t do it. It has to be approved,” he said.
Expanding on Woldman’s thought, Miera said consideration could also be given to state budgets now prepared year-to-year. He said state budgets could then be modified into multi-year budgets.