Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – For about a year, a small group of Democrats in the House – all women – have met informally to talk about restructuring the Legislature.
Their ideas fall broadly into what supporters call “modernizing” the state’s citizen Legislature – where members don’t draw a salary, have little staff and cram much of their work into 30- or 60-day sessions each year.
Proposals intended to overhaul the system – offered by Democrats and Republicans alike – have repeatedly fallen short over the years, despite support in recent years from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
But the group in the House says the timing is right to build support for changes they say would result in a more effective, responsive New Mexico Legislature.
For one thing, the Legislature now includes more women and younger adults – many of whom have school-age children and full-time jobs.
“It’s changed the complexion of the Legislature and made it more urgent,” state Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, said in an interview Friday.
The new faces at the Roundhouse understand the importance, Garratt said, of building a different kind of legislative body – one where members draw a steady state salary of some kind and have staff members to help them with constituent services and analyzing legislation.
At least 49 members of the House and Senate next year will be women – a 29% increase over a four-year period. Women make up a majority of the House and they make up two-thirds of the Democratic caucus in that chamber.
Ideas for reshaping the legislative system are broad at this point, but supporters say they are eager to consider any bills that gain traction in next year’s session.
“For me personally, I’m keeping an open mind,” Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, said.
Past proposals have suggested designating the State Ethics Commission to determine an appropriate salary for lawmakers, or expanding the 30-day sessions now held in even years to 45 days, with no limits on what can be introduced.
The shorter sessions are now dedicated largely to financial matters and anything added to the agenda by the governor.
But specific proposals – generally focused on salaries, staffing and session length – are still being crafted ahead of the 2023 session.
Changing the length of sessions or establishing a salary would also require voter approval to amend the Constitution.
Campaign for change
Outside advocacy groups are also preparing a push to modernize the Legislature.
Common Cause New Mexico, a nonprofit group, this week will release a survey of likely voters by Research & Polling Inc. that shows public support for paying legislators, as long as they don’t set their own salaries; granting them a budget to hire staff; and extending the length of legislative sessions.
“Folks close to the New Mexico legislature have long known that our short sessions, unpaid legislators and the staffing patterns are out of step with the complex problems facing the state,” Mario Jimenez, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, said in a written statement. “But this poll indicates that the public knows it too.”
The survey included a random sample of 816 voters who said they were likely to vote in the 2022 general election. It was conducted from Sept. 16 to Oct. 13 and has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
The results showed 52% support among voters for having the State Ethics Commission set a salary and 62% support for an independent salary commission.
Here’s how the question was asked: “If New Mexico legislators were to be paid a salary, there are different groups that could set the salary level. Would you support or oppose each of the following to set the salary level?”
Debate over reshaping the Legislature intensified this spring when 12 of the 70 members in the House – including Speaker Brian Egolf – opted against seeking reelection. Some cited the toll on their families and professional obligations.
New Mexico has the nation’s only unsalaried Legislature.
Instead, lawmakers draw daily payments for legislative work, based on federal per diem, when attending meetings. It added up to about $5,200, for example, for the 30-day session held earlier this year.
Lawmakers also get a mileage reimbursement, and there’s an optional pension plan.
Supporters of setting a salary say it would expand the pool of people who can serve.
Under the current system, Garratt said, it’s easy to end up with “a retired-persons Legislature rather than a more diverse Legislature.”
Garratt herself is recently retired, though she had balanced her job as a teacher with legislating in past sessions.
Any proposal to set a salary is likely to run into opposition. Many Republican lawmakers and candidates opposed the idea when asked about the issue by the Journal during this year’s election cycle.
GOP lawmakers say they knew what they were signing up for and that a state salary isn’t likely to improve the system.
Rep.-elect Alan Martinez – a Republican who won a newly drawn open seat in Sandoval County – said the compensation now in place didn’t dissuade him from running.
He is a former deputy Cabinet secretary and retiree who worked for 25 years at the Department of Veteran Services, making him familiar with how state government works.
“The pay never entered my mind,” Martinez said of his decision to run. “I’m not doing this for a job. I’m committed to serving, and that’s what’s important to me.”
The ideas for overhauling the Legislature go beyond just pay.
Duhigg, an attorney and single parent, said legislators would benefit from a robust staff of experts who can help research legislation.
Lawmakers now get written analysis from professional staff who work for the Legislative Finance Committee and Legislative Education Study Committee, but much of the information conveyed to lawmakers in the heat of the session comes from paid lobbyists.
“Having access to a neutral subject-matter expertise is critical,” Duhigg said.
Constituent services is also an area of need, supporters said.
Rep. Kristina Ortez, a Taos Democrat who works for a land trust, said it’s difficult to balance a full-time job with calls from constituents who need critical, time-sensitive help.
People are shocked, she said, when they learn lawmakers don’t draw a salary and don’t have individual staff to help them between sessions.
“In my mind,” Ortez said, “modernizing the Legislature will only benefit our constituents.”
The 60-day legislative session begins in January, when more-specific proposals for broad change are expected to surface.