SANTA FE — A new push to overhaul the structure of New Mexico’s Legislature is off to a partisan start at the Roundhouse.
Two separate proposals to extend session lengths and pay lawmakers a salary cleared their first assigned House committee on Monday on party-line votes — Democrats voting in favor and Republicans in opposition.
Both proposals would require approval from statewide voters in November 2024, if they’re approved by both legislative chambers this year.
Backers of the ideas, including various progressive advocacy groups, insist the time has come for New Mexico to take steps to modernize its Legislature by paying lawmakers a salary, increasing legislative staffing levels and reshaping the session format.
“I do think times have changed since we became a state and it warrants a second look at this time,” said House Majority Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, who said it’s common for lawmakers to have to make technical fixes to bills approved in the final frenzied days of a session.
As a new legislator in 1996, Chasey said she found most of her colleagues were wealthy or retired — or both.
While the makeup of the Legislature has changed in recent years and women now make up more than half of the 70-member House, some lawmakers have said it remains difficult for young professionals with children to serve at the Roundhouse.
“I have thought many, many times of quitting this job because of the utter stress it causes,” said Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, who said she’s decided to stay, for now, in large part due to a desire to provide representation for young girls.
Legislative pay in context
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 during legislative sessions and on days when interim committees are meeting in the summer and fall. They can also qualify for a legislative pension plan after 10 years.
In addition, legislative sessions are currently limited by the state Constitution to 30 days in even-numbered years and 60 days in odd-numbered years. That would change under House Joint Resolution 2, which would set the length of legislative sessions at 60 days every year and provide a five-day recess halfway through each session.
Republican members of the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee raised questions during Monday’s hearing about whether the proposals to revamp the Legislature would end up benefiting taxpayers.
“Do we want people who care about the states or do we want paid politicians?” asked Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, who has served in the House since 2006.
In addition, Rep. Martin Zamora, R-Clovis, queried backers about the increase cost posed by the proposals, as the plan to extend session lengths alone would cost an estimated $3 million more per year, according to an analysis of the legislation.
He also expressed unease about the plan to pay lawmakers a salary, saying, “In my view, it’s just hard to give myself a raise.”
How the modernization proposals would work
Legislators would not directly set their own salary levels under the proposal, House Joint Resolution 8, that was passed Monday on a 5-3 vote.
Instead, that task would be assigned to an outside nine-member salary commission whose members would be appointed by leading lawmakers and the state Ethics Commission.
New Mexico voters would also have the ability to annul salary levels proposed by the commission, though doing so would require a significant effort — namely a petition signed by at least 10% of the total number of voters who cast a ballot in the most recent general election.
Meanwhile, questions could arise about whether lawmakers would still get per diem payments under the salary plan, and whether the pension plan they currently qualify for would have to be changed.
Proposals in recent years to modernize the Legislature have stalled short of the finish line, but top-ranking Democrats including House Speaker Javier Martínez of Albuquerque and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe have signaled their support for the measures this year.
Lawmakers already approved $2.5 million to fund a study about the possibility of field offices for lawmakers and full-time legislative staffers for all 112 lawmakers. That funding was included in a session spending bill passed during the opening week of this year’s 60-day session.
During Monday’s debate, some lawmakers said many New Mexicans already think the Legislature functions like Congress and are not aware they currently don’t get paid a salary.
“It’s no wonder people want to borrow money from me, because they think I make $75,000 a year,” joked Rep. Doreen Wanda Johnson, D-Church Rock.