SANTA FE — Legislative leaders are moving forward with plans to study the feasibility of creating field offices and year-round staff to help New Mexico lawmakers carry out their work between sessions.
The Legislative Council — a panel of high-ranking lawmakers — voted 11-5 on Monday to seek proposals from companies to conduct the study.
It was largely a party-line vote, with all 10 Democrats in favor and five of six Republicans opposed. Sen. Steven Neville of Aztec was the lone Republican to vote “yes.”
Lawmakers discussed the request for proposals behind closed doors but voted in public to authorize it. A legal notice soliciting proposals may be published as soon as this week.
In an interview, state Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, said it’s vital for New Mexico’s part-time lawmakers to have staff who can help respond to constituents and examine policy questions.
The state’s lawmakers, she noted, don’t draw a salary or have district offices.
“I think we’d be better representatives if we had staff who could help us,” Herrera said. “It’s really difficult when you’re a volunteer, citizen legislature and you have a lot of work to do.”
Herrera’s district in northern New Mexico stretches from Española to the Colorado line, making two-and-a-half-hour drives routine when she attends a community meeting, she said.
Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, a Belen Republican who voted against issuing the request for proposals, said he had objections to the content of the RFP that weren’t addressed in executive session. But he didn’t elaborate in the open part of the meeting.
Money for the study was authorized earlier this year. About $2.5 million was set aside in budget legislation approved in January to hire a consultant to study and make recommendations “on the logistics and resources needed for district staff offices and operations.”
Many Republican lawmakers opposed the appropriation, saying it wasn’t appropriate to include a staffing study in House Bill 1, the budget legislation that authorizes funding to pay for a legislative session.
The study, in any case, is part of a broader debate over restructuring the state Legislature itself — perhaps by establishing salaries for legislators, lengthening sessions and expanding staff.
Legislative leaders and each caucus now have a small year-round staff, but rank-and-file members don’t.