Now is the time to make substantial and desperately needed changes in the operation and procedures of the New Mexico Legislature.
A coalition of good government and other civic organizations, including the League of Women Voters of New Mexico, is proposing some major improvements, namely lengthening the legislative sessions, creating a salaried legislature and providing year-round staff for all legislators.
Efforts to improve New Mexico’s operations and effectiveness have been afoot for decades, in recognition that today’s Legislature faces demands not contemplated when the 1912 constitution was created. In 2007, the Legislative Structure and Process Task Force produced a report with many practical recommendations. Many of them concerned such operational reforms as increased transparency, scheduling and workload. A 2017 report by the League of Women Voters of New Mexico and Common Cause New Mexico made many similar recommendations concerning transparency and public participation, and efficiency and effectiveness.
The New Mexico Legislature will, in just a couple of months, begin its 30-day session. The Legislature meets for 60 days in odd years and 30 days in even years. During both of these sessions, the body must deal with a huge workload. In the 2019 regular 60-day session, there were 1,663 bills, memorials, joint memorials, resolutions and joint resolutions. In the 2020 regular 30-day session, they had 919 legislative items.
New Mexico has the only unsalaried legislature in the United States. Legislators receive a per diem when meeting. The legislators do receive a pension if they choose to participate. Although legislators do not receive a salary, they are expected to perform constituent services, study all legislative items, participate on interim committees and more. Legislators, other than the leadership, do not have (year-round) staff assistance to help them with the above duties.
Our legislative sessions are among the shortest in the nation, preventing many good bills from being passed. The sessions are too short to permit thoughtful study and debate on the large amount of legislation introduced. They enable delaying tactics to run out the clock, leaving many bills to die at the end of each session.
The fact that most legislators do not have staff, especially when the Legislature is not in session, limits legislators’ ability to respond to constituents. In addition, legislators lack the time, and often the expertise, to study and decide on a wide variety of topics. This increases their reliance on paid lobbyists for information on the bills.
The League and the other coalition members believe the public would benefit greatly from these reforms. Legislators will be able to perform more constituent and community services, and receive more independent research and advice on legislation. In addition, temptations for ethics violations would be reduced. Importantly, there would be potential to increase diversity in the Legislature. Currently, many prospective candidates are deterred from running for office because they have to work and don’t have jobs that allow flexible schedules.
We hope all New Mexicans will join us in advocating for these legislative improvements. Ask your legislators to enact legislation to amend the New Mexico Constitution to lengthen sessions, pay legislators and provide staff for all in order to modernize the Legislature and allow the members to perform their work more effectively.