It’s unpopular, maybe even radical, to call for better pay for statehouse politicians.

I’m doing it after camping for 30 days at the Capitol, where the lack of talent ought to jar the taxpaying public into the 21st century. A law dating to 1912 prevents New Mexico from getting the best and brightest people into all 112 legislative seats.

New Mexico is the only state that doesn’t pay its legislators a base salary. It’s been that way for 104 years, since New Mexico entered the union as a frontier outpost with 330,000 people. Now, with a population of more than 2 million, New Mexico is still operating under an Old West tradition that may not have been a good idea then and certainly isn’t now.

A nonsalaried citizen Legislature protects mediocre and bad politicians by depressing the pool of talent in elections. Retirees, people of means and public employees who receive time off from work can run for the New Mexico Legislature. Most everyone else cannot.

Republican Rep. Terry McMillan, a physician from Las Cruces, this year proposed a constitutional amendment to change that law. His idea was to pay state legislators a salary of no more than the median income of a household in New Mexico. That was about $41,000 last year. Currently, legislators receive $163 a day for their expenses when they are in session or on official business.

McMillan’s proposal for a base salary died quickly, and most legislators seeking re-election were happy about it. They didn’t want to endorse something that could be used against them in campaign commercials.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, was one of the few who publicly supported McMillan’s proposal. “We romanticize about the citizen Legislature, but in reality it’s not, because so few people can afford to serve,” said Maestas, an attorney.

New Mexico has many good lawmakers who work hard and think deeply about the consequences of what they do. But for every talented member of the Legislature, two or three others do little except introduce copycat bills from other states, or parrot measures that the governor, the attorney general or an interest group want enacted.

Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, again carried the failed policy measure from Gov. Susana Martinez to hold back hundreds or even thousands of third-graders each year based on standardized reading tests. Other states, notably Republican-dominated Oklahoma, have turned against rigid systems that discount parents and teachers in deciding whether a third-grader should be retained. Youngblood, who doesn’t have a college education, dutifully introduces Martinez’s bill mimicking an old Florida law because Martinez made campaign promises to hold back kids based on standardized tests.

Then there was Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo, who in a floor debate said he believed 9 in 10 people arrested by police had committed crimes. A lawmaker publicly discounting a constitutional protection is another indication of how thin the competition is for legislative seats. Colleagues rebuked Burt. Afterward, he told me he believes in the presumption of innocence, and that he either misspoke or his remarks were misinterpreted.

Even with the odds stacked against getting the best talent, there are lawmakers who excel. Sen. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque, is one of them. She made the gutsiest move of the session in a high-profile debate.

It started when members of Democratic Attorney General Hector Balderas’ staff walked out of a Senate committee hearing like petulant children because they didn’t get their way on a crime bill. The next night, Republican Sen. Mark Moores of Albuquerque called two members of Balderas’ staff to serve as his expert witnesses during a floor debate on the same bill. Torraco objected, saying Balderas had not been helpful on the legislation. Inspired by Torraco, Democratic and Republican senators joined in a resounding voice vote ejecting Balderas’ staffers from the Senate floor.

Torraco, committed to passing good legislation, wouldn’t capitulate to an attorney general who thinks he can be a dictator because he defeated a patsy in the last election.

New Mexico needs more people who go to the Capitol to establish good policy, not to do the bidding of the governor or the attorney general.

Even Mississippi and Alabama, where not so long ago governors blocked schoolhouse doors to maintain segregation, pay their legislators a base salary. New Mexico can’t attract top talent with a century-old system that makes it impossible for most people to run. If New Mexico residents want a better, more prosperous state, they need to invest in a system where the cream can rise.

Ringside Seat is a column about New Mexico’s people, politics and news. Follow the Ringside Seat blog at www.santafenewmexican.com. Contact Milan Simonich at 505-986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com.

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