Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers might draw a state salary – for the first time – under a proposed constitutional amendment that passed the House on Wednesday.
The proposal, if approved by the Senate, would ask voters to decide whether to establish an independent salary commission to determine the pay of the governor, lawmakers, statewide officials and judges.
Under the current system, New Mexico legislators are reimbursed for some expenses and draw per diem payments during the session or when attending interim meetings, not a set salary.
Rep. Angelica Rubio, a Las Cruces Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said a salary would broaden the number of people who could serve in the Legislature. Many professionals – especially young people – can’t afford to leave their jobs and families each year during the session, she and other supporters said.
“This is about who’s being left out of this system,” Rubio said. “Maybe we don’t have right people sitting at this table.”
Republican lawmakers blasted the proposal as an expansion of government. They said it would be tough to look a constituent in the eye and argue that legislators deserve more pay.
“Given the state is almost dead last in every yardstick for which we can be measured, how can we make the case that we’re not already overpaid?” asked Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs.
Much of the debate focused on what it means for New Mexico to have a citizen Legislature – in which many members are either retired or hold regular jobs. Lawyers, teachers, ranchers and business owners all serve as legislators, for example.
Critics say the system creates potential conflicts between lawmakers’ public duties and their private interests.
Even without a salary, some lawmakers can end up making about $20,000 over the course of a year, depending on their committee assignments and how far their home district is from the Roundhouse.
They get about $160 to $180 a day for lodging, meals and similar expenses, based on the federal reimbursement rate for work in Santa Fe.
The legislation, House Joint Resolution 5, passed 44-24 and now heads to the Senate, with 10 days left in the session.
The proposed Public Officer Salary Commission would be a seven-member group, with limits on how many members of each political party could serve.
The governor and chief justice of the Supreme Court would each appoint two members, and the Senate president pro tem and House speaker would each appoint one person. The commission itself would pick the final member.