Every few years, someone in power timidly suggests New Mexico should pay its legislators a base salary.
I’m all for it. The citizen Legislature that’s been in place since the advent of statehood in 1912 doesn’t work now, if it ever did. New Mexico’s archaic system makes it impossible for most people to run, and it does a fine job of keeping elected officials in the dark.
Still, many residents romanticize about their citizen Legislature. They claim it attracts people from all walks of life.
In practice, the opposite occurs. Because legislators aren’t paid a base salary, most people can’t afford to serve.
Retirees, lawyers and public employees dominate the 112-member Legislature. Most other people lack the money or favorable schedule necessary to run.
Teachers and school administrators often are candidates for the statehouse, and they usually win. Unions and school boards like the idea of having people in the Legislature who will look out for their particular interests. Graduate students aren’t as well positioned.
Several retired police officers and an active-duty Albuquerque fire captain have won legislative seats in the last decade. I’ve never seen an accountant or a carpenter hold a legislative office. They have to make a living in the private sector. New Mexico’s system of paying lawmakers only a daily expense allowance shuts them out.
Pitches for a salaried Legislature always generate angry responses. The same people who want professionalism in government are quick to carp whenever the idea of a paid Legislature surfaces.
In 2016, then-Rep. Terry McMillan, R-Las Cruces, took a risk by proposing a constitutional amendment establishing a salary of $41,000 a year for legislators. He chose the amount because it was the state’s median household income.
McMillan’s proposal didn’t make the ballot. Other legislators were afraid to vote for it, anticipating a backlash in the fall election.
McMillan, a surgeon, lost his seat to Democrat Joanne Ferrary months after his proposal for a salaried Legislature.
With his defeat, the idea of paying legislators a salary receded. It’s back now, though many lawmakers are worried about being seen as advocates for change.
Some weaklings in the Legislature want the State Ethics Commission to establish salaries for legislators. It’s a way of trying to divert attention from work lawmakers are responsible for completing.
Legislators cannot receive a salary unless voters amend the state constitution. Legislators themselves would have to be courageous enough to place the proposal on the ballot.
They probably won’t do it. Some don’t want to.
Retirees often run for the Legislature with token competition or no competition at all. A salaried Legislature would make their political lives less comfortable.
Changing the system also might improve the performance of the Legislature, which is often at sea on important matters.
Unlike most states, New Mexico is a place where legislators seldom know much about the state budget or care to learn. Most citizen lawmakers are content to cede power to a few colleagues who specialize in state finances and the professional staff that guides the budget-making process.
The citizen Legislature has other drawbacks. This summer, lawmakers on the Legislative Education Study Committee were blindsided by a scandal in their own agency.
Their staff director, Rachel Gudgel, was the target of a special investigation last year after underlings complained she made racist comments and drove off subordinates with an abusive management style.
Yet most legislators knew nothing about the trouble. Only a handful were aware of any inquiry, as a small group of legislative leaders decided Gudgel would receive a two-week suspension.
That maneuver galled legislators who supposedly supervise Gudgel. They knew nothing about her misconduct or the fact that House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, initially wanted to fire her.
The Legislative Education Study Committee is full of bright people, including Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque. A teacher in his sixth year in office, Romero is vice chairman of the committee.
But those holding legislative leadership positions froze out him and most everyone else. Lawmakers running the Senate and House of Representatives knew other part-time lawmakers couldn’t possibly be on top of the special investigation of Gudgel.
Paid staff members and lobbyists enjoy extraordinary power in New Mexico. The main reason is the citizen Legislature hands authority to them.
With rare exceptions, the part-time, nonsalaried Legislature knows little compared to the staff employees and well-paid advocates working to influence the lawmakers.
New Mexico can keep a citizen Legislature for as long as it likes. And it can stay forever at the bottom of public education, child well-being and efficiency in government.