As members of the only Legislature in the country that serve in office for free, New Mexico lawmakers are once again broaching the politically thorny idea of giving themselves a salary.

But they’re hoping to avoid the predictable backlash by letting others decide what the amount should be.

A proposed constitutional amendment presented Monday to the Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee would put the decision-making in the hands of the State Ethics Commission, which would review and establish salaries for legislators every two years.

Under the proposal, which would require voter approval, the commission also would set the salaries of all elected officers of the executive and judicial branches of state government, some of whom are underpaid compared with their peers.

“The problem is not just a legislative branch problem,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who plans to introduce the proposal during next year’s 30-day legislative session. “The problem affects all three branches of government.”

While some elected officials may earn less than others in similar positions, lawmakers are unpaid.

“We have it in our constitution that we shall not be paid,” Ivey-Soto said. “There’s been a fair amount of history on this over the years where there’s been attempts to change the narrative, and part of the problem is the general public thinks we’re overpaid as it is because, after all, what rational person would do what we do for nothing?”

Though lawmakers collect per diem and are eligible for pension benefits, some contend the lack of a set salary limits who can serve in the Legislature.

“The idea that one needs to be a lawyer, independently wealthy or extremely resourceful to be able to even think about running is one of the main key points that I applaud [in] this effort,” said Rep. Roger Montoya, D-Española, who runs a nonprofit.

Ivey-Soto said the Legislature was “comprised of the three R’s: the rich, the retired and the resourceful.”

“This will open up who gets to serve,” he said. “This is going to continue that process of changing the face of who runs.”

Montoya called the plan to place the responsibility of setting salaries on the Ethics Commission “rather crafty and good.”

Sonny Haquani, a spokesman for the commission, said neither the agency nor commissioners had a comment on the proposal “at this time.”

“I think the standpoint that came out in the last instance where this policy was raised was that the Ethics Commission will do whatever the Legislature asks of it essentially but that this isn’t something that we’re necessarily advocating for or against,” he said.

In addition to having the Ethics Commission set the salaries of elected officials, the proposal also calls for transferring to the state Supreme Court the authority to appoint two Ethics Commission members. Currently, four commissioners appointed by legislative leaders pick those two members. Lawmakers on the committee expressed support Monday for the proposal.

“Having been around here for a while and seeing the struggles with all three branches, I think this reform is long overdue,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who has served in the Legislature since 2004, first as a state representative and now as a senator.

“I appreciate the way you’ve built the Ethics Commission in as the body to make that decision and think this is something I hope we can move forward and send to the voters,” he said.

Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, however, questioned why legislators deserved a salary after abdicating their responsibilities. For example, he said, a citizen committee is overseeing redistricting, or redrawing New Mexico’s political district boundaries.

“Now we want to go to having the Ethics Commission set the salaries for everybody,” he said. “Where are we going to stop? Is the next bill that you’re going to propose a legislation that we want to have a budget committee comprised of citizens that will decide the budget of the state of New Mexico? How much longer are we going to continue giving up what we are constitutionally supposed to do?”

Ivey-Soto noted the Citizen Redistricting Committee will make recommendations and that the “ultimate decision” will be the Legislature’s.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said Ivey-Soto’s salary proposal didn’t go far enough. Although compensation is a “major factor,” Sedillo Lopez said the proposal doesn’t change the structure of the Legislature “to make it have the ability to do its job.”

“We are an extremely weak branch of the government structurally,” she said. “When you look at the fact that we don’t get staffs and how part time we are, we are, I believe, the weakest Legislature in the country that way.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

(10) comments

Steve Martinez

Pay them the federal minimum wage for tipped employees.

Peter Romero

They all know what the deal is before running for office. Only after they get elected they want to change the deal. Politics at its best. If you don't like the deal don't run for office its that simple.

Joshua Rosen

Interesting that they run for office knowing that it is a community service and commitment if they they want a salary? Maybe we need to re-elect individuals who understand the concept of political service.

Stefanie Beninato

I agree that a paid legislature would open the office up to many more people. It will also encourage those who think politics is easy to try to grab a seat and get paid. My biggest problem is we rely on oil and gas for the largest share of our revenue. What happens when oil and gas tanks and there are cut backs? Are legislators going to willing give up part of their salaries when that occurs? Also will legislature be a full time endeavor rather than the 30 or 60 day sessions we have now? If you look at the strong mayor model in Santa Fe and the citizen advisory group that recommends salaries you would know it is fraught with problems.

Chris Mechels

The "underlying problem" is that the Executive Branch is too strong, esp since we allowed, in the 90s, two terms for the Governor, AG, ... We also, in the same Constitutional Amendment, allowed those in office to run for another office, and we got Hector Balderas serving 2 terms as Auditor, followed by 2 terms as AG. Before the change, they could only serve one term, and had to "sit out" after that term.

Using Constitutional Amendments for this purpose is "cutting butter with a chainsaw", and should stop. The Democrats, as the Ruling Party, use Amendments to "get around" objections in the Legislature. Part of their general corruption. Expecting reforms from the Democrats is perhaps laughable. We should instead ask the Republicans, as minority parties understand the corruption very well.

Khal Spencer

Yep. The underlying problem is the Legislature is weak and furthermore, rather spineless. The Governor is going on two years straight of ruling by emergency decree. Where is the pushback? Other states have statutes of limitations on emergency executive authority. We got lap dogs in the Roundhouse who will not push back.

I'm happy to pay the legislators if they do two things. One, not be AWOL ten or eleven months of the year and two, be a co-equal part of the New Mexico governance, which they have never been due to the way the state constitution assigns duties and P/T status to the legislature. Maybe we need to revisit the State Constitution.

Mike Johnson

Well said Khal, I totally agree. And I do not think the original Constitutional framers ever dreamed we would have dictatorial, ego-maniac, power-grubbing governors who seek total control over the legislature and the people, or an egregious and poorly worded "emergency health act" that would bestow such complete power in one person. Time for a new constitution, and I would not be averse to paying the legislators, if they actually earned it. Today, they don't even earn my respect.

Emily Koyama

Many legislators are fairly well off. Some are even wealthy, owning businesses. Why not make financial compensation needs-based, with a sliding scale?

Does someone earning, say, 200k per year (Biden's standard) need more income for public service?

rodney carswell

yes, make financial compensation needs-based; but let's promote that for every vocation, from hamburger flippers to law enforcement officers to CEO's of something like Intel or ConocoPhillips--make their compensation needs based relative to their personal wealth vs. a general needs economic standard; great suggestion EK.

Al Chavez

I would say yes. Pay them all equally. Despite their wealth they should feel beholden to the taxpayers who pay them. Don't let them think they owe their constituents nothing.

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