Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Commentary: Legislative salaries range from high to almost zero


On a recent episode of the PBS TV show “New Mexico in Focus,” a panelist used the phrase “full time” in talking about a salaried legislature. This was the latest confirmation that when New Mexicans talk about a salaried legislature, most of us don’t know what we’re talking about.

I wrote about the legislative policies of several other states a few weeks ago. None of those states has a “full time” legislature.

Can we please stop all the boo-hooing about being the only state that doesn’t pay legislators a salary and have an informed conversation?

To make sense of a potential legislative salary, we should understand what legislators do and how much time they spend doing it, and then think rationally about what we might want them to do that they are not doing now.

Every state except New Mexico pays legislators a salary, but most are nowhere near “full time.”

The National Council on State Legislatures describes 5 categories of legislatures.

· Full-time, well paid, large staff: four states, the high-population states of California, New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

· Full time Lite: six states, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts.

For those ten states, time on the job averages 84 percent of a full time job; compensation averages around $82,000. NCSL counts campaigning as time on the job. The total compensation estimate includes per diem (pay toward expenses such as hotel costs) and other expense payments.

The other 40 states are categorized as part-time, low pay, small staff; part-time lite; and Hybrid.

There are 14 states, including New Mexico, in the low-pay category. Legislators spend 47% of their time on legislative matters, says NCSL, and the average compensation is around $18,000. That figure includes per diem.

New Mexico is not necessarily the lowest.

Our current per diem rate is $210, so legislators will have received $12,600 for the recent 60-day session. The same rate is paid for attending interim committees, so some New Mexico legislators will probably come close to that $18,000, depending on how many days they attend interim committees. The rate is based on the IRS expense rate for Santa Fe.

Most of them spend some of that money on lodging in Santa Fe and in whichever city the interim committees meet. A few don’t have to. It is not an accident that many legislative leaders over the years have lived in Santa Fe.

Indexing the per diem and mileage rates to the IRS rates was adopted as a constitutional amendment in 1996. Prior to that, the per diem was a fixed dollar amount. To change the rate, a new constitutional amendment had to be passed by the state’s voters. Legislators hated having to ask the voters for a raise in the rate. The late Rep. George Buffett gleefully claimed credit for introducing the amendment that fixed the problem by linking per diem to the IRS rate.

Total pay for New Mexico legislators might exceed that of Rhode Island, where legislator salary is $16,835 but no per diem is paid. None. Tiny Rhode Island measures 48 miles north to south and 37 miles east to west. But that doesn’t mean legislators have no expenses. They still could get stuck overnight in Providence in a snowstorm.

In the Hybrid states, NCSL estimates legislators spend 74% of their time on legislative business, and the average pay, salary plus whatever else is included, is around $41,000.

Every state has written its own laws and rules, so no two states are exactly alike.

Whenever New Mexico decides to pay legislators a salary – which I believe we eventually will – we do not have to invent our rules from scratch. There are numerous models we can learn from.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through


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