New Mexico has the only unsalaried state Legislature in the United States. The Legislature convenes in odd-numbered years for no longer than 60 days and in even-numbered years for only 30 days. Also in even-numbered years, lawmakers are limited to dealing with budgetary matters, bills related to special messages from the governor and bills vetoed in the previous session. Having a state Legislature with no salary, no support staff, that meets on such a limited basis — this current structure of our citizen Legislature is holding New Mexico back. We, as a state, need legislative reform.
New Mexico’s economy continues to be one of the slowest growing economies in the country. The state budget shortfalls for 2016 totals were near $600 million, and that slow economic growth by the state reveals too much dependence on the federal government and oil revenues.
Those sources of New Mexico’s economic malaise provide funding for education, veterans programs, police and firefighter funding, and health care programs like Medicaid. New Mexico also is a state where half of all New Mexicans are on Medicaid or Medicare.
Only a handful of states struggle with similar levels of extreme poverty as New Mexico. More than 1 in 10 households in the state earns less than $10,000 each year, the second highest proportion after Mississippi. The state also struggles with one of the nation’s highest violent crime rates. Close to 600 violent crimes are reported each year per 100,000 state residents, one of the highest rates nationwide.
New Mexico, for two years in a row, has been ranked as the worst-run state in the country with some of the worst social and economic outcomes. In just six years, New Mexico went from the 37th spot to the 50th — the worst-run state.
New Mexico also has a “citizen Legislature,” more properly termed a “volunteer Legislature.” Because these legislators are unpaid, they all must have outside jobs, businesses or sources of income.
Will factors like this be a challenge for the New Mexico Legislature in handling the mounting state problems with the public education, crime, health care and in addressing state economic policies?
The state of New Mexico should use funds from the legalized hemp industry to start paying its legislators. A hybrid state Legislature meets for most of the year and pays the legislators as full-time employees. They can serve the constituents much better because of their extended time in office and ability to devote more time to each issue. The state can provide funding for a hybrid Legislature, with support staff, for less than $7 million per year.
Some lawmakers, such as Democratic Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque, say a salary would increase the pool of talent to fill the seats. Maestas says few people can afford to serve in a citizen Legislature. Political action committee growth and influence in New Mexico politics has more than doubled in the past 10 years. All the larger municipalities and counties in New Mexico provide salaries for city councilors and county commissioners.
States have paid fire departments, law enforcement, health care workers and teachers, to name a few. We rightly expect increased reliability, productivity and professionalism when we pay for services as opposed to them being provided voluntarily.
Providing funding for a paid Legislature and state budget reform can be achieved with industrial hemp legalization in conjunction with the utilization of solar, wind and geothermal energy sources. This will create jobs, has vast potential for the state universities to benefit and creates several new business markets to keep college graduates in New Mexico.
Jason Barker lives in Albuquerque.