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Bid to pay salaries to legislators fails again

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico will remain the only state in the nation that doesn’t pay salaries to its legislators – at least for now.

But Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told a post-session news conference that she supports paying lawmakers, suggesting that even a modest salary would broaden the candidate pool.

“New Mexico needs to take a hard look,” the Democratic governor said in response to a question on the issue. “We make it nearly impossible for people to serve.”

Several proposals dealing fully or in part with paying New Mexico legislators have been introduced at the Roundhouse in recent years but have fallen short of winning approval.

During the 30-day session that ended Thursday, a plan that would have authorized the new State Ethics Commission to review and establish the salaries of elected officials – including legislators – ended up stalling in the Senate without a final vote being taken.

Although that proposal would have gone to statewide voters – and not the governor – if it had won legislative approval, Lujan Grisham said she supports the idea.

Flanked by top-ranking lawmakers just an hour after this year’s session ended, Lujan Grisham said its tricky for legislators to pass measures dealing with their own salaries.

“They can’t answer that question. I can,” the governor said.

In Pennsylvania, more than a dozen lawmakers were ousted in the state’s 2006 primary election for increasing their salaries the previous year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham also said the Legislature’s structure makes it difficult for many New Mexicans to serve in the House or the Senate, because they typically have to either be retired or work in jobs that allow them to take extended time off.

“We make it impossible for them to do their work outside of the legislative session,” Lujan Grisham said.

“The state, in my view, has to take a hard look by an independent body” at whether the Legislature should be paid to ensure its work is top-quality, she said.

Although New Mexico lawmakers are not paid salaries, they do receive some financial compensation.

That includes per diem payments – currently set at $167 per day – intended to cover meals and lodging, along with other types of reimbursement and a pension plan that vests after 10 years of service.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, one of the sponsor’s of this year’s proposal to have the Ethics Commission set salaries for legislators and other elected officials, said Friday that he “absolutely” plans to bring the idea back during next year’s 60-day session.

Although some lawmakers balked at giving an appointed body the power to set elected officials’ salaries, because that is usually the Legislature’s duty, Ivey-Soto said the approach would help legislators steer clear of possible political and ethical fallout.

“What the public is rightly concerned about is whether we are self-dealing,” Ivey-Soto told the Journal.

He also said the Ethics Commission would be able to review data, including from other states, in considering whether, and how much, legislators should be paid.

But backers of the current system have long said there’s value in the citizen legislature model, as teachers, farmers, doctors, insurance agents and more each bring their own expertise to the Roundhouse.

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