Barb Johnson, a New Mexico Parole Board member for more than 13 years, feels disrespected and is considering resigning from office.
She is upset by two wildly different standards — one for those who make New Mexico’s laws and another for people in the trenches who keep state government running.
Johnson and the other 14 members of the board are volunteers in a system of crime, punishment and second chances. They work long hours for meager compensation.
Board members receive nothing for time spent poring over voluminous case files to prepare for parole hearings. They collect $95 a day for the hearings themselves. Soon enough, parole board members might see their compensation cut to $45 a day.
“I will resign if it happens,” Johnson said.
The “it” she referred to is Senate Bill 345. The proposal recently was approved by both chambers of the Legislature with only one dissenting vote.
SB 345 would change the state government’s system of reimbursing expenses for people serving on hundreds of boards and commissions.
The measure does not apply to legislators. Their expense allowance is $194 a day when they are in session or working during the interim.
The bill would alter the state’s Per Diem and Mileage Act for others. It calls for nonsalaried public officers to receive $45 for physical or virtual attendance at a meeting of less than four hours.
They would receive $95 for physical attendance at a meeting of four hours or more. The proposed legislation makes no distinction between the heavy demands on the parole board compared to most other state boards.
Johnson, of Albuquerque, spends part of three weekends each month preparing for parole hearings.
Johnson then helps preside over hearings three Wednesdays and three Thursdays of the month. A docket of 24 cases is completed weekly. For this, she receives the $95-a-day compensation.
Most other state boards meet less often. Some hold quarterly meetings that conclude in a day.
By the time Johnson, a retiree, pays her income taxes and self-employment taxes, she figures she receives minimum wage for serving on the parole board.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is considering whether to sign the bill that would lower per diem rates. Her spokeswoman said Thursday the governor will take into account “feedback” from the parole board.
Johnson could deliver an earful.
“Where does the governor think she’s going to find people who are going to do this work?” Johnson said in an interview. “I hope I’m not hanging myself, but what do I have to lose? Forty-five dollars a day?”
She isn’t alone in criticizing the bill.
Anna Farrell, an attorney in private practice and parole board member from Las Cruces, said the measure is notable for its unfairness. State lawmakers working in virtual meetings should accept a $45 per diem if they think it’s equitable for others.
“I hope the state reconsiders this penny-wise, pound-foolish legislation,” Farrell said.
The Department of Finance and Administration told legislators $300,000 was spent on per diem reimbursements for nonsalaried public officers in 2019. New Mexico’s proposed budget for the coming year is $7.4 billion.
Janet Chandler, a parole board member from Las Cruces, said New Mexico receives extraordinary service from the volunteers. They do the arduous work of balancing community safety with giving inmates a chance at redemption.
“Having been on the board for over a year now, I realize how important it is to have professional persons performing these duties,” said Chandler, who retired after 35 years with the state Corrections Department. “I understand why most states have their parole board members as paid positions.”
Approving this slipshod bill is evidence of weaknesses in New Mexico’s government.
Sen. Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos, co-sponsored the proposal. He told me it came about because per diem reimbursements hadn’t been updated since 2003.
Revisiting financial policies is a fine idea, especially in a pandemic. But part-time legislators failed to do the necessary spadework to determine if they were on the right track.
Rep. Phelps Anderson, an independent from Roswell, was the only lawmaker to vote against the bill. The rest supported a proposal with a complex mix of policies — some good, some not.
Now a revolt might be brewing in a key section of the Corrections Department.
“Most if not all of the parole board will resign immediately if this bill is signed,” Farrell said.
The inmates aren’t running the asylum. It just seems that way with the state Legislature passing half-baked bills.