'Modernizing' moves: Voters are sending more women to the Legislature. Will structural changes follow? - Albuquerque Journal

‘Modernizing’ moves: Voters are sending more women to the Legislature. Will structural changes follow?

New members of the New Mexico House, from left, Kathleen Cates, D-Corrales; Janelle Anyanonu, D-Albuquerque; and Alan Martinez, R-Bernalillo, talk during a December ethics training session. The new faces at the Roundhouse are expected to help push ideas for “modernizing” the Legislature. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — For about a year, a small group of Democrats in the House – all women – have met informally to talk about restructuring the Legislature.

Their ideas fall broadly into what supporters call “modernizing” the state’s citizen Legislature – where members don’t draw a salary, have little staff and cram much of their work into 30- or 60-day sessions each year.

Proposals intended to overhaul the system – offered by Democrats and Republicans alike – have repeatedly fallen short over the years, despite support in recent years from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

But the group in the House says the timing is right to build support for changes they say would result in a more effective, responsive New Mexico Legislature.

For one thing, the Legislature now includes more women and younger adults – many of whom have school-age children and full-time jobs.

“It’s changed the complexion of the Legislature and made it more urgent,” state Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, said in an interview.

The new faces at the Roundhouse understand the importance, Garratt said, of building a different kind of legislative body – one where members draw a steady state salary of some kind and have staff members to help them with constituent services and analyzing legislation.

At least 49 members of the House and Senate next year will be women – a 29% increase over a four-year period. Women make up a majority of the House and they make up two-thirds of the Democratic caucus in that chamber.

Ideas for reshaping the legislative system are broad at this point, but supporters say they are eager to consider any bills that gain traction in next year’s session.

“For me personally, I’m keeping an open mind,” Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, said.

Past proposals have suggested designating the State Ethics Commission to determine an appropriate salary for lawmakers, or expanding the 30-day sessions now held in even years to 45 days, with no limits on what can be introduced.

The shorter sessions are now dedicated largely to financial matters and anything added to the agenda by the governor.

But specific proposals – generally focused on salaries, staffing and session length – are still being crafted ahead of the 2023 session.

Changing the length of sessions or establishing a salary would also require voter approval to amend the Constitution.

Legislative overhaul

New Mexico has the nation’s only unsalaried Legislature.

Instead, lawmakers draw daily payments for legislative work, based on federal per diem, when attending meetings. It added up to about $5,200, for example, for the 30-day session held in 2022.

Lawmakers also get a mileage reimbursement, and there’s an optional pension plan.

Supporters of setting a salary say it would expand the pool of people who can serve.

Under the current system, Garratt said, it’s easy to end up with “a retired-persons Legislature rather than a more diverse Legislature.”

Any proposal to set a salary is likely to run into opposition. Many Republican lawmakers and candidates opposed the idea when asked about the issue by the Journal during this year’s election cycle.

GOP lawmakers say they knew what they were signing up for and that a state salary isn’t likely to improve the system.

Republican Alan Martinez – who won a newly drawn open seat in Sandoval County in the Nov. 8 election – said the compensation now in place didn’t dissuade him from running.

He is a former deputy Cabinet secretary and retiree who worked for 25 years at the Department of Veteran Services.

“The pay never entered my mind,” Martinez said of his decision to run. “I’m not doing this for a job. I’m committed to serving, and that’s what’s important to me.”

The ideas for overhauling the Legislature go beyond just pay.

Duhigg, an attorney and single parent, said legislators would benefit from a robust staff of experts who can help research legislation.

Lawmakers now get written analysis from professional staff who work for the Legislative Finance Committee and Legislative Education Study Committee, but much of the information conveyed to lawmakers comes from lobbyists.

“Having access to a neutral subject-matter expertise is critical,” Duhigg said.

Constituent services is also an area of need, supporters said.

Rep. Kristina Ortez, a Taos Democrat who works for a land trust, said it’s difficult to balance a full-time job with calls from constituents who need critical, time-sensitive help.

“In my mind,” Ortez said, “modernizing the Legislature will only benefit our constituents.”

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