SANTA FE – The highest-compensated member of the New Mexico Legislature collected nearly $21,000 last year under a system that provides no annual salary to lawmakers but grants them daily expense reimbursements.
Sen. Richard Martinez, an Española Democrat, received $20,922 for last year’s legislative session and attending committee meetings during the year, according to information from the Department of Finance and Administration obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request.
Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Questa Democrat, collected $19,734, and former Rep. Ray Begaye, a Shiprock Democrat who lost his re-election bid, received $19,096.
Compensation for legislators cost taxpayers $1.2 million last year.
Payments averaged $11,061 for the 112 lawmakers who served in the 30-day legislative session last year. That excludes reimbursements for one senator who was appointed in late October to fill a vacancy.
Begaye topped the compensation list with $29,000 in 2011, when the Legislature held a 60-day session and a special session on redistricting.
New Mexico stands out as the only state that doesn’t provide a yearly salary to its legislators, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Salaries vary from about $95,000 a year for lawmakers in California to $100 a year in New Hampshire.
The New Mexico Legislature is part-time, and members are considered citizen legislators.
House and Senate members collect a daily expense payment, called a per diem, when the Legislature is in session and while attending or traveling to committee meetings throughout the rest of the year
Those payments were $154 a day during last year’s legislative session – $4,620 for the 30-day session – and rose to $176 a day from June through October before returning to $154 in November.
Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1996 linking the payments to a federal rate for what’s tax-deductible for room and board in Santa Fe while on business. The rate automatically goes up or down as the government adjusts the rate for inflation. The expense reimbursements had been $75 a day before the constitutional change.
Martinez favors switching to a system that provides a yearly salary to legislators. The per diem payments fail to adequately cover expenses, including wear and tear on a lawmaker’s vehicle for traveling to meetings, he said. Martinez served on six interim committees last year, but lawmakers are paid mileage to drive to those meetings.
“Maybe if we had a decent salary we could hire a part-time clerk or something to help us with our mail. I carry a mailbag with me everywhere I go,” said Martinez, a retired magistrate judge.
A change in the pay would require voters to approve a constitutional amendment.
“I am not sure if the public would go along with it, because I think they feel that we don’t do anything anyway,” said Martinez.
Paul Gessing, president of the conservative Rio Grande Foundation, said he’s satisfied with the compensation system and doesn’t consider last year’s payments to lawmakers as excessive.
“Certainly within the taxpayers’ pocketbooks, even paying $20,000 a year to all legislators wouldn’t be extreme. It’s just a question of fairness and the legislators not trying to take advantage of the system,” Gessing said.
Questions arose last year about possible double-dipping problems in the Legislature’s expense system. Begaye was reimbursed by NCSL for driving a rental car to the seminar but also was paid mileage by the Legislature. He later returned some NCSL expense money.
— This article appeared on page A4 of the Albuquerque Journal