New Mexico is the fifth-largest state in the nation. It encompasses 121,593 square miles.
It has a citizen Legislature whose elected members are paid a daily rate, or per diem, to serve. They all get the same $154, which has to cover expenses. The average total per diem for lawmakers, including those who served only part of the year, was around $11,000 in 2012.
In reality, New Mexico legislators can have vastly different expenses, mostly depending upon where they live. Those in Santa Fe or nearby towns like Española and cities like Albuquerque are likely to have fewer expenses than those who live in Deming or Raton and have to pay for hotel rooms and travel.
Mileage reimbursement doesn’t balance out the inequities, either. The Constitution limits lawmakers to one round trip per session. Republican Rep. David Gallegos, who lives in Eunice, more than 320 miles from the Capitol in Santa Fe, has to cough up $100 in gas to cover a trip home.
While legislators know going in that the system isn’t fair, it’s reasonable to consider making it more equitable for people to serve. During sessions legislators work hard, often into the night. Many are taking time away from their jobs, businesses and families to work for the rest of the state’s citizens.
Sen. Peter Wirth, a Democrat from Santa Fe, says perhaps New Mexico should look at Arizona where legislators get a salary and per diem. He suggests paying lawmakers a salary and basing expense reimbursements on actual costs. That could level the playing field so everyone gets what is deserved instead of some lawmakers pocketing unspent per diem while others have to dig into their own pockets.
Our lawmakers deserve better, and we can only hope voters would agree if they got a chance to change the system via constitutional amendment.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.