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Editorial: State needs clarity on NM lawmakers’ per diem checks

Our state Constitution says lawmakers shall receive per diem “for each day’s attendance” at legislative sessions in Santa Fe and for attending legislative committee meetings between sessions. It also says every legislator shall receive a mileage reimbursement for “going to and returning from the seat of government by the usual traveled route.”

The per diem was meant as a way to compensate our citizen legislators for lodging, meals and incidental costs for their part-time public service. The state Constitution bars any other “compensation, perquisite or allowance,” such as a salary. And while the state has debated for years on switching to a full-time, paid Legislature – New Mexico is the only state with unsalaried lawmakers – that presumably would take a constitutional amendment.

In the COVID-19 era, the New Mexico Legislature has had two short special sessions and the recent 60-day session. Senators were required to participate from the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. House members could participate remotely from their homes.

An untold number of House members opted not to travel to Santa Fe. Yet many think they deserve the $194 per diem payments and the mileage reimbursements of 56 cents a mile – over $1 million on the taxpayers’ dime.

What reinforces that notion is that lawmakers automatically receive the per diem and mileage checks – regardless of whether they live in Santa Fe or Roswell.

Each lawmaker received over $10,000 in per diem payments for this past 60-day session, totaling nearly $1.2 million, according to KRQE. It’s unclear how many lawmakers accepted the full checks.

In the past, before COVID and remote participation, few questioned lawmakers’ simply accepting the checks.

But this year, many lawmakers were paid per diem and mileage expenses though they never set foot in Santa Fe. “I’ve been in Las Cruces the entire time,” state Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, told KRQE TV last week, “because I have older parents who were at high risk, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near the petri dish that is the Roundhouse.”

Her caution is understandable. But she is clearly of the mind that lawmakers deserve to be paid for their time, regardless of whether the expense of traveling to Santa Fe is involved. Asked by KRQE whether remote lawmakers should forgo per diem, Rubio responded with an unapologetic “no.” A nonprofit consultant, she said the only income for “quite a few of us” is per diem. That is not how it works under our Constitution or in any dictionary: Per diem is not income; it is compensation to cover expenses.

Rubio sponsored an unsuccessful joint resolution this session giving the State Ethics Commission authority to establish salaries for all elected officers.

Senate Minority Whip Craig W. Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, told KRQE that while the Constitution requires lawmakers be paid per diem, “it is not required that the legislator accepts it.” He says lawmakers who did not attend the 60-day session should have refused the money.

This past session highlighted an issue worth clarification.

It’s time the state attorney general or auditor weighed in on the constitutionality of lawmakers being paid per diem and mileage for expenses they did not incur – whether it’s because they are participating remotely or because they live a few blocks from the Roundhouse.

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.