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.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at

msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

(12) comments

Jarratt Applewhite

The rationale for not paying legislators is that people wont seek the office for financial reasons. That's an idea whose time has passed. Way passed.

At statehood, only elites considered seeking public office. The gente seldom thought they could be considered and, in fact, they were right b/c they couldn't afford to devote a lot of time to an activity that provided zero compensation (unless they were corrupted). That time is long gone. Officeholders need enough compensation so that they can do the peoples' work.

Right on, Milan.

Stefanie Beninato

I agree that paying legislators will broaden the base of those who can run for this office. On the other hand, once pay goes above a certain level, it seems that some candidates are more focused on what they think will be easy money. My concerns about paying legislators is that we rely on oil and gas revenues for the state budget. When that tanks how do we pay for legislative salaries? Is the legislature going to be meeting year round? Think of the increased staff etc that will be necessary. Also the state ethics commission does not strike me as the proper body to be setting salaries. Look at Santa Fe's experience in transitioning to a strong mayor model.

Cheryl Meyer

Paying the legislators is a good idea. We need people to serve who will keep on top of issues, be more involved and bring in new blood. I enjoy living in New Mexico, but I'm appalled at how low the state scores in so many categories. The attitude of many public servants seems to be, "Well, this is New Mexico, what do you expect?" With that attitude, we'll never be higher than 49 forever. We seem to be going in an endless circle of high poverty, less-educated population (including high illiteracy), less-attractive workforce to attract companies, high crime impacting everything, stagnant leadership, among others. I know, it's easy to point out failings, but harder to provide the fixes. I think paying legislators could be a step in the right direction.

Paul Ingraham

Thanks Milan for sharing this info. The shenanigans of politicians in New Mexico need to be exposed so we can get rid of the bad apples. Now if that only worked for POTUS and vice POTUS.

Richard Reinders

[thumbup]

Dan Lewis

Not commenting on Gudgel's behavior; just saying that having 32 people on a committee is a joke. Nothing would EVER get done. That is a crash course in inefficiency. At the conclusion 15 of the people would be complaining about whatever is done. More numbers does not mean better results. BTW, $260. an hour is relatively cheap for an experienced attorney. All in all, a tempest in a teapot. How bout all those Vaxx deniers in southern NM? That is a real storm.

Richard Reinders

Dan have you been vaccinated if so what do you care if someone else hasn't, it hurts them not you and for the time being this is still America and they have the right to choose, may not be the right choice but it is still their choice. The Government keep moving the goal post to coral people into getting a shot, so we don't even know if they are being honest with the public.

Richard Irell

All those anti-vaxers who end up in the ICU cost us all a pot of money.

At this point anyone who is unvaccinated and gets COVID-19, should have to pay for medical treatment out of pocket.

Khal Spencer

This all leaves me wondering how many skeletons are buried in the Gudgel closet. What dirt does she have on these legislators that they are circling the wagons so tightly?

Mike Johnson

Exactly, as corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain, there must be something in it for them to be doing this. But without a public investigation into the what and why here, we will never know what that is. But the lack of known evidence does not prove there is none.

Jerry Appel

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Lynn k Allen

There has been so much "smoke" that the issue needs full public view, especially since public school funding is involved.

A listing of the elected officials who are trying to keep this under the rug would help in the next elections.

Welcome to the discussion.

Thank you for joining the conversation on Santafenewmexican.com. Please familiarize yourself with the community guidelines. Avoid personal attacks: Lively, vigorous conversation is welcomed and encouraged, insults, name-calling and other personal attacks are not. No commercial peddling: Promotions of commercial goods and services are inappropriate to the purposes of this forum and can be removed. Respect copyrights: Post citations to sources appropriate to support your arguments, but refrain from posting entire copyrighted pieces. Be yourself: Accounts suspected of using fake identities can be removed from the forum.