As polarization and gridlock continue to grip national politics, Americans are increasingly looking to states to remedy the nation’s most significant challenges. The burden has fallen to states like New Mexico to address complex issues such as health care, infrastructure, education, crime, water policy, voting rights, energy, abortion and the environment. Indeed, states’ responses to our most recent crisis – the coronavirus pandemic – illustrates just how consequential state-level policymaking and implementation are for the average American.
In a Feb. 14 editorial, “NM needs to know what a ‘modern’ Legislature delivers,” the Journal questioned whether legislators and voters have enough information to move toward modernizing our state Legislature. As the authors of the report they reference, we suggest there is an abundance of knowledge on the subject, something our exhaustive analysis of over 70 years of published research on the subject of “legislative professionalism” details. We don’t need more data or study; we need action.
State legislatures need the “capacity” to deal with complex policy issues. Currently, New Mexico’s Legislature is one of the least professionalized, or modernized, in the nation. Designed over 100 years ago, ours is the only legislature that does not pay its legislators a salary, has the third shortest legislative sessions in the nation, and is in the bottom third of total staff provided to legislators. Proposals are before our state legislators this session that would address our legislature’s lack of capacity, and that would help rebalance the checks and balances system.
The challenge is that like any major change to political institutions, modernizing our Legislature will result in a variety of important – and often competing – consequences. Professional legislatures tend to advantage incumbents. But they also encourage challengers to run, thus decreasing the number of uncontested elections and giving voters more choice. At present, the pipeline of candidates favors those who have time to serve and discourages those who might want to serve but can’t because balancing legislative life, family responsibilities, and regular careers is impossible. Yes, modernization will likely increase campaign spending in elections. But it will also produce more capable lawmaking, more effective bargaining with governors, greater oversight of executive branch agencies, and better constituency service.
In short, modernizing our Legislature would give our representatives the capacity they need to push back against outside interests, including lobbyists and the executive branch, allowing them to be more responsive to the New Mexicans who elect them. Adding staff and days in session will immediately increase the ability of the Legislature to function more effectively because it will enhance its ability to research policy challenges and alternative solutions to them. The effects of legislator pay on legislative capacity are less clear, but paying people for their work is the fair thing to do.
The complexity of the policy challenges our state faces requires that our Legislature have greater capacity to act. Indeed, the Journal’s recent editorial highlights a recurrent problem, which is that we can’t accomplish something new in a single session. There is no need to kick the can down the road, however. Modernizing our Legislature will strengthen the ability of our elected representatives to respond to complex public policy problems in a timely fashion, and the time to act is now.