Bill tackles modernizing Legislature - Albuquerque Journal

Bill tackles modernizing Legislature

Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, talks with Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, on the House floor on Wednesday. The House voted 47-19 to approve a bill that includes funding to study the idea of field offices and full-time staffers for New Mexico legislators. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

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SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers took a possible first step toward modernizing the Legislature on Wednesday, advancing a bill paying for session expenses that includes money to study the idea of field offices and full-time staff members for all 112 legislators.

The $2.5 million in proposed funding prompted a lengthy House floor debate, with some Republicans trying unsuccessfully to strip it out of a “feed bill” appropriating a total of $57 million that’s typically filed on the session’s opening day.

“This proposal is not ready for prime time,” said Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, who argued the funding should instead be included in a budget bill for the coming year.

But backers said the proposal had been properly vetted and was crafted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

“I think what we’re looking for is if there’s a way for all state legislators to be more professional and more responsive in their jobs,” said House Majority Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque.

She said a contract to carry out the study could be issued after the funding bill is signed.

The idea also drew support from House Republican whip Jason Harper of Rio Rancho, who said allowing each legislator to have a full-time staffer could assist with research and constituent meetings.

The bill, House Bill 1, ultimately passed on a 47-19 vote – or just enough to reach a two-thirds approval requirement for bills proposed to take effect immediately upon being signed by the governor. It now advances to the Senate.

New Mexico is currently the only state in the nation in which legislators do not receive a salary, though they do get a per diem payment – currently set at $178 per day – that’s intended to cover food and lodging expenses. They can also qualify for a legislative pension plan.

In addition, New Mexico is one of only two states – Nevada is the other – that does not have full-time legislative staff for all lawmakers, Chasey said.

Currently, only lawmakers in leadership positions have year-round offices, though staffers in such offices work for all members of a given caucus. That leaves many rank-and-file legislators to rely on colleagues and lobbyists for technical information on bills.

Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, one of the architects of the proposal to study full-time staffing and field offices, described her northern New Mexico district as roughly the size of Massachusetts and said she’s sometimes unable to respond to all constituent queries.

Meanwhile, the proposal to study field offices and full-time staffing is one of several measures dealing with modernizing the Legislature that lawmakers are expected to debate during the 60-day session that started Tuesday.

Other proposals would allow an outside salary commission to set salary levels for lawmakers and extend the length of legislative sessions.

One already filed proposal, House Joint Resolution 2, that would require the approval of statewide voters at the next general election, would set the length of legislative sessions at 60 days every year.

Currently, legislative sessions are constitutionally limited to 30 days in even-numbered years and 60 days in odd-numbered years.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, recently said in an interview it’s time the Legislature embrace changes, saying the demands on citizen legislators were unreasonable.

“There will be a big push to get every legislator an office and a staffer,” Wirth said.

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