'Balancing act' a tough ask for NM's citizen lawmakers - Albuquerque Journal

‘Balancing act’ a tough ask for NM’s citizen lawmakers

Rep. Tara Lujan, D-Santa Fe, watches Joe Leinsdorf to sign her petition Thursday as she seeks a spot on the ballot for the Democratic Primary. Lujan was appointed by Santa Fe County to replace Linda Trujillo, also a Democrat. She is collecting signatures on Osage Circle, an area added to the district during the last redistricting. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – As a single mom and legislator, Tara Lujan knew she couldn’t waste a sunny afternoon.

With her 8-year-old daughter at school earlier this week, she seized the chance to knock on doors and gather signatures for her reelection bid.

Sixty miles away, another mom, Rep. Kay Bounkeua of Albuquerque, wasn’t asking anyone for campaign help.

Serving in the nation’s only unsalaried legislature is simply too difficult, she said, especially with a 3-year-old daughter at home.

Bounkeua is one of at least eight members of the New Mexico House who have announced plans to forgo reelection or already resigned. The departures include House Speaker Brian Egolf and others who have cited the toll on their family, employment and personal life.

The full scope of the shake-up should become more clear by 5 p.m. Tuesday, the deadline to formally declare a legislative campaign. All 70 seats in the House are on the ballot this year.

Deciding whether to run isn’t necessarily easy for lawmakers.

The hours can be intense. Twice in the last week of this year’s session, the House worked overnight, including 26½ hours straight before adjournment.

The pay isn’t lucrative. New Mexico lawmakers draw daily payments – based on federal per diem – of $170 to $200, or about $5,200 for this year’s 30-day session. They also get a mileage reimbursement and an optional pension plan.

In an interview, Lujan, a Santa Fe Democrat in her first term, said she is eager to serve in the House. But she is drawing on her savings and the help of family members to make it work.

“It’s almost undoable, to be honest with you,” she told the Journal. “There have been many moments where I’ve thought, how long – what’s the sustainability of doing this kind of work at the pace it calls for?”

Rep. Kay Bounkeua, D-Albuquerque, speaks on the House floor during the special session on redistricting in December. She announced she won’t seek reelection this year because of the financial and family toll of serving in the Legislature, where members don’t draw a salary. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

For Bounkeua, the decision to step down came after two exhausting, combative sessions – one focused on redistricting last year, the other a regular 30-day session.

Appointed in August, she said she knew going in that it would be difficult to balance the needs of her family, her regular job at the Wilderness Society and the Legislature.

“You have to put the kiddo first,” Bounkeua said. “It was really hard for me to do that while also juggling a full-time job – my day job – as well as doing legislative duties.”

Bounkeua, a Democrat who represents the International District in Albuquerque, exhausted her vacation time and will take unpaid days off work to attend committee hearings held the rest of the year.

Family decisions

Making it work, of course, is possible, even for working families, some legislators say.

Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, has three sons – the youngest of whom was 11 when she joined the House about 10 years ago. She said her family understood that serving in the Legislature meant she would spend at least a month or two every year in Santa Fe, about 90 miles away.

“It’s not easy, but public service isn’t easy,” Fajardo said. “It’s a sacrifice we all make.”

Outside of legislative duties, she owns a small business and works as a real estate broker.

The Legislature meets for 30- or 60-day regular sessions in alternating years. There are also shorter special sessions – four in the past two years – dedicated to specific topics.

Bicameral committee meetings take place between sessions.

In the House, members face primary and general elections every two years, so, every 30-day session leads into campaign season. The Senate is on the ballot every four years.

Proposed changes

Repeated attempts to establish a salary for lawmakers or to revise the length and structure of legislative sessions have failed.

Just this year, a proposed constitutional amendment focusing on pay cleared one Senate committee and died in its second without reaching the floor of either chamber.

The legislation, Senate Joint Resolution 8, would have called on the State Ethics Commission to review and set salaries for elected officials in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government.

In 2021, a proposal to create a Legislative Process Review Commission won House approval 41-26, but did not advance through any Senate committees, much less reach the full Senate.

That measure, House Bill 301, would have created a panel to develop policy recommendations on transparency, compensation, staff support, session rules and the funding of capital outlay projects.

Also in 2021, a proposal backed by House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, called for extending even-year legislative sessions to 45 days and removing limitations on what could be put on the agenda. House Joint Resolution 13 passed the House on a 45-21 vote and advanced through its only Senate committee, before dying at the end of the session.

As for pay, New Mexico is the only state that doesn’t offer a specific salary to lawmakers, though a salary isn’t a guarantee of good compensation. New Hampshire, for example, provides an annual salary of $100 with no per diem, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

California and New York, by contrast, pay salaries of at least $110,000 a year.

Many states offer a mix of mileage reimbursements, per diem and a salary.

Arizona legislators, for example, get $24,000 a year, plus mileage and per diem, depending on where they live.

In New Mexico, the mileage and per diem are intended to cover travel, lodging and meals, but no base salary is provided. Lawmakers also have the option of participating in a legislative pension plan.

‘Balancing act’

Speaker Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat who has held the most powerful post at the Legislature since 2017, surprised his colleagues last month by announcing in the final minutes of the session that he wouldn’t run for reelection this year.

He said he wanted to spend more time with his 11- and 14-year-old daughters, and his wife, Kelly.

Bounkeua, for her part, made it clear in announcing her decision that she believes New Mexico should modernize its Legislature by offering a salary and evaluating other changes, perhaps longer or year-round sessions.

The public isn’t well-served, she said, by the crush of the final days of a session – when separate bills are rolled together, surprise amendments pop up and sleep-deprived lawmakers make final decisions on what to support.

“To get everything done in 30 days,” she said, “it’s nearly impossible. You want to make decisions that you feel like are very informed and are community backed. You can’t do that if things are so rapid-paced.”

Lujan said she gave up a state job to join the Legislature and is looking for work that will allow her to take the breaks necessary to keep serving in the House. She saved money to ease the transition, and family help has been critical.

“My extended family,” Lujan said, “is really the heart of how I get everything done.”

While lawmakers deserve a salary, she said, it should be tied to stronger ethical regulations prohibiting conflicts of interest.

As things stand now, for example, teachers, farmers and energy executives serving in the Legislature vote on legislation affecting their industry or profession. Recusal is required only in limited circumstances.

Fajardo said a salary isn’t the answer. Even if legislators make, say, $30,000 a year, she said, many of them will maintain their outside jobs, anyway, costing taxpayers money without fundamentally changing the Legislature.

A key improvement, she said, would be expanded staff to help legislators evaluate bills and serve constituents. A predictable schedule of committee hearings and floor sessions, she said, would also help lawmakers plan their time.

“There’s a balancing act we all have to do,” Fajardo said. “That’s just the way it is.”

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