New Mexico lawmakers don't draw a salary. Legislation moving forward would ask voters whether they should get one - Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico lawmakers don’t draw a salary. Legislation moving forward would ask voters whether they should get one

Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces

SANTA FE — The state House endorsed a plan Saturday to ask voters to end New Mexico’s status as the only state without a salaried legislature — a move supporters said would broaden the pool of people who can serve.

It triggered intense debate over three hours on the House floor as lawmakers wrestled with the meaning of public service and whether New Mexico would benefit from restructuring its legislative body.

Republicans, in particular, questioned whether a salary is appropriate for what was once envisioned as a part-time job.

The legislation, House Joint Resolution 8, won approval 40-24 — largely along party lines with Democrats in favor.

It would amend the state Constitution to establish a citizen commission that would set a salary for the state’s 112 lawmakers. The measure would go before voters next year if the Senate agrees to the plan in the final two weeks of this year’s session.

Members of the Legislature now draw per diem payments during legislative sessions and for meetings in the interim, receive mileage reimbursements and can participate in a retirement plan.

But they don’t get a year-round salary.

Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, said the lack of a salary distorts who can afford to serve in the Legislature.

“We’re leaving a lot of people out of the conversation,” Rubio said as she defended the legislation.

Republicans who assailed the measure said it’s misleading to suggest lawmakers aren’t compensated.

“We don’t have a salary,” Republican Rep. James Townsend of Artesia said, “but we’re certainly generously gifted with a retirement package.”

A legislator with 10 years of service could receive about $17,000 a year in retirement, according to an example calculated by the state’s pension system. Participation costs about $600 a year in member contributions.

The legislation debated Saturday wouldn’t set a particular salary. Instead a nine-member citizen commission would determine the salaries, with the extra pay starting in mid-2026.

Supporters say that if the amendment is passed, they would follow up with more specific legislation designating how commission members would be selected and any limit on what salary they could set.

A Republican-sponsored amendment sought to limit any potential salary to the state’s median household income, now about $54,000 a year. Republican lawmakers said it would be dangerous to allow an unelected commission to set salaries with no cap.

But the proposed limit failed.

The Democratic sponsors of the legislation said it was better to let the commission decide what factors to consider in setting a salary.

Work load between sessions

Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, said serving in the Legislature takes work all year, not just in regular sessions that alternate between 30 and 60 days.

Critical work, she said, also happens in interim meetings that usually begin in spring and — depending on the committee — may continue until the session starts in January. Lawmakers are also called to the Capitol occasionally for special sessions.

Herrera said she is retired and now dedicates her time to serving constituents in a northern New Mexico district the geographic size of Massachusetts, adding 25,000 to 30,000 miles a year on her vehicle.

“I call this a year-round job without pay,” she said. “Only certain people can do that.”

Republicans said the proposal would change the character of the Legislature — for the worse.

“We didn’t take this job to start a second career,” Rep. Alan Martinez, R-Bernalillo, said. “We took this job to be public servants.”

All Republicans present voted against the measure, as did one Democrat, Ambrose Castellano of Las Vegas.

Low pay, other proposals

The per diem rate, set by a federal agency, has ranged from about $178 to $210 a day this year for Santa Fe. Nearby hotel rooms this month run from about $118 a night to $315.

Some states pay worse than New Mexico, even with a salary. New Hampshire, for example, grants its lawmakers a salary of just $100 a year, plus a mileage reimbursement.

But the amount varies widely. In Arizona, lawmakers last year received a $24,000 salary plus mileage and per diem.

Saturday’s salary legislation is part of a broader package of changes lawmakers are weighing this year that would restructure the Legislature.

A second measure, House Joint Resolution 2, would lengthen legislative sessions from 30 to 60 days in even-numbered years and remove a restriction on what bills can be taken up during even years. Under the current system, the election-year sessions are open to budget legislation, constitutional amendments and topics authorized by the governor.

Both proposals would require voter approval if they make it through both chambers this year. The session ends at noon March 18.

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