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Lawmakers might ask voters to allow them to get salaries

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Legislators in New Mexico usually have day jobs.

They aren’t paid a salary for serving in the Legislature, and most of them are either retired or have careers that allow them to take a break to travel to Santa Fe for legislative sessions, often hundreds of miles from home.

But a proposed constitutional amendment awaiting action in the Senate aims to broaden the pool of people who could serve – and perhaps limit potential conflicts from outside employment – by clearing the way for lawmakers to draw a salary.

Senate Joint Resolution 7 calls on the new State Ethics Commission to establish salaries for elected state officials and judges, starting in 2023. The independent ethics agency would determine whether lawmakers should draw a salary and, if so, how much.

New Mexico is the only state where legislators don’t collect a salary, though lawmakers are typically paid thousands of dollars a year in per diem and reimbursements. They can also participate in a retirement system that provides a pension.

Legislators collect per diem pay during the session and for attending meetings, along with reimbursement for some expenses. The payments might total $25,000 in a year, though the amount varies.

The per diem, in any case, only goes so far, supporters of the amendment say, especially for legislators who live far from the Roundhouse and must rent hotel rooms in a high-cost capital city. The per diem, which is based on IRS guidelines, is $167.

“It’s really important to look into modernizing our Legislature,” Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, said in an interview. “When we can’t pay a legislator, I think it limits the diversity with our own Legislature.”

The proposal will have to move quickly to win passage before the session ends Thursday. It has narrowly passed two Senate committees already – by votes of 6-4 in each panel – and is now ready for consideration by the full Senate.

The joint resolution would also require approval by the House.

If approved by lawmakers, the proposed constitutional amendment would go to voters in November. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s support isn’t required.

Opponents of the bill have questioned whether the State Ethics Commission is the right agency to determine salaries. They say an unelected body shouldn’t be empowered to set salaries that will affect the state budget.

Some opponents also say the proposal is a backdoor way to secure salaries for lawmakers.

In a recent committee hearing, Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, questioned whether voters would realize what they’re voting on. He noted that the proposal would ask voters whether the State Ethics Commission should be the sole authority for setting salaries of “all elected state officers,” without mentioning legislators specifically.

“I’d like it to be clear to the public that they’re also voting on establishing salaries for legislators,” Griggs said.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the legislation, contends the ethics commission, as an independent agency, is well-suited to study the issue and take the politics out of setting salaries for state officials and judges.

“We’re out of it,” Ivey-Soto said, “and it’s not politicized.”

Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause, said the bill could be an important step toward professionalizing the Legislature.

Under the current system, teachers, ranchers, lawyers and people from all walks of life cast votes on legislation that could affect their employers or the industries they work in.

A salaried legislator – depending on the pay level – might not have to work outside the Capitol.

“The public remains incredibly skeptical when we have citizen legislators who typically spend their full-time day jobs working in certain industries and then go into the Legislature and take votes that affect those industries,” Ferguson said Saturday. “Those conflicts of interest are inherent in the structure we currently have.”

Just this session, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, notified his colleagues that he would abstain from consideration of a medical cannabis bill that would affect a lawsuit he’s involved in.

But it’s rare for lawmakers to recuse themselves from a vote.

In 2017, former state Sen. Phil Griego was convicted after prosecutors accused him of violating state laws on ethics, fraud and bribery.

Griego, who worked in real estate, maintained it wasn’t a conflict for him to earn a commission on the sale of a historic state building – a transaction that was made possible after his colleagues voted to authorize it.

“This is what I do for a living, bro,” he said in an interview with journalist Peter St. Cyr, who broke the story in the Santa Fe Reporter. “If they don’t want us to do business, pass a constitutional amendment to allow the Legislature to be paid.”

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