New Mexico's Legislature needs to get paid
Study shows increasing the length of sessions, providing supportive staff, and paying salary to the only volunteer Legislature in the nation would provide New Mexicans with higher-quality lawmaking.
The New Mexico State Legislature is the only unpaid state Legislature in the US. Not only are they unpaid, but they have one of the shortest legislative sessions and are not provided with field offices or staff despite the vastness of New Mexico’s geography. These shortcomings cause some unique issues and outcomes for the state.
The lack of resources restricts the amount of time Legislators can work on solutions to complex issues. Furthermore, researchers say the lack of pay keeps those in lower economic classes from becoming representatives. But if you can afford to become a legislator in New Mexico, you probably won’t have the time or resources to do the job to your fullest.
Modernizing, or professionalizing, the Legislature would mean three things: paying legislators a living salary, giving them an office with staff, and lengthening the duration of the annual session. A professionalized Legislature could better serve the needs of New Mexicans - needs that are evolving all the time.
A bill was passed last session that pays for a feasibility study of how other state legislatures modernized, but since the governor signed it into law, it’s unclear if the study has started or will conclude before the next session starting in January. Given the research on modernization that is already out there, I suspect the study will come back with a thumbs up.
The study was done by UNM professors Timothy Krebs and Michael Rocca, and it reveals that the New Mexico Legislature ranks near the bottom of the nation when it comes to its capacity to perform a wide range of oversight measures. The researchers found that other state legislatures with salaries, supporting staff, and longer sessions are more productive and effective lawmakers.
New Mexican legislators are the only “volunteer” legislators in the nation - they are not given a salary, office, or staff, but they get a $210 per day stipend during the session for housing and food. Still, representatives expect to lose money during each session due to the high price of housing and dining in Santa Fe.
Representative Dayan Hochman-Vigil of Albuquerque said during the 2023 session, “…the only way you could serve in the New Mexico Legislature is… to be one of the three ‘Rs’: rich, retired, or resourceful.”
If they do manage to make the per-diem work, legislators are expected to perform their duties without the support of staff - tasks like writing legislation, performing office duties, or researching issues in their district. There are staff and other resources for high-ranking members of the Legislature, and non-partisan Legislative service agencies like the Legislative Finance Committee, but no support for the average legislator and their constituents.
When we think about the government being underfunded, we typically think of executive branch staffing issues. While New Mexico’s executive branch is severely underfunded, the legislative branch is even more so. The Executive branch has been the beneficiary of nearly all State expenditures:
Modernizing the Legislature would also mean lengthening the duration of legislative sessions.
The NM Legislature is limited to operating within 60-day sessions on odd years and 30-day sessions on even years. Outside of that, the Governor can call the Legislature into an unlimited number of ‘special sessions’, and the Legislature can call for ‘extraordinary sessions,’ but these rarely happen. In most years, all of New Mexico’s lawmaking happens in the regular session that starts on the third Tuesday of January every year.
During the 2023 60-day session, I worked for the NM Environment Department in the Climate Change Bureau where we worked with legislators sponsoring the Clean Transportation Fuel Standard (CTFS). Among other things, we wrote informational pamphlets, tallied expected votes, educated legislators, and watched the bill slowly move through committees. It became pretty clear that the legislators we were working with were able to learn complex policies very quickly, but that didn’t mean all legislators would learn about each policy - they simply didn’t have the time.
Each CTFS committee hearing was a heated dialogue between those educated about the bill, those uneducated about the bill spreading misinformation, and GOP members filibustering as long as they could. At the end of the day, the filibustering worked - we ran out of time and the CTFS never reached the House floor. At every level of politics, filibustering is a common strategy used to stall legislation, but in a state Legislature that convenes as little as 30 days a year, filibustering is even more debilitating.
In 30-day sessions, like the one starting next month, the Governor can select certain interests to rise to the top of the Legislature’s to-do list. At one point I heard that the CTFS would be that issue, but there are a lot of issues on the political zeitgeist right now, and I’m not confident that climate issues will be top of mind for the Governor and Legislature. Legislating for a US state with 21st-century problems takes time - it can’t all possibly fit into a 30-day window.
Modernization bills were proposed last year and had the bipartisan support of most legislators and voters, but ironically, the session ended before they could make it through all the committees. Fortunately, they were able to pass a bill that finances a feasibility study that is going to look at the logistics of creating field offices and staffing for all 112 legislators. While this is a good first step for proponents of modernization, it’s unclear whether the study has started, or how long it will take. The Albuquerque Journal reported in May that the Legislature was looking to find an independent consulting agency soon, but that’s the latest I could find on the subject.
The next session starts on January 16th, but 30-day sessions are more budget-focused and there will be little time for extra issues with outstanding feasibility studies. Either way, if you live in New Mexico, consider emailing and calling your representatives about modernizing the state Legislature. Ideally, that feasibility study comes back sooner rather than later - it’s probably about time we modernize.