Legislative Salaries: The Devil’s in the Details

By Jennie Lusk

Suppose New Mexico voters pass a constitutional amendment supporting a salary for the state’s 112 legislators. Suppose we have plenty of money to add them to the state payroll (which seems likely; see https://nmlegis.gov/Handouts/ALFC%20082421%20Item%2012%20General%20Fund%20Consensus%20Revenue%20Estimate.pdf). Are we, then, done with the issue of compensating legislators? Not really. The devil’s in the details, even after passage of a constitutional amendment that, in principle, authorizes salaries.

After passing such a constitutional amendment, legislators still need to amend current laws that establish policy on how a paid legislature operates, even if the State Ethics Commission recommends how to do it. Among other things, they’ll need to generally agree whether to establish legislators as full- or part-time and how much to pay them. Details of methods and foundations for policy decisions are surveyed here.

Creating a paid third branch of government as powerful as the executive and judicial branches is a big task, but one well worth pursuing. Fully functional state governments compensate lawmakers on a par with their judicial and executive branch colleagues. In keeping with the recommendations of Rutgers political scientist Alan Rosenthal, a wave of 35 states began in the 1960s to establish salaries for lawmakers, and such salaries have increased from an average of $4,000 per year to $40,000 per year by 2021. An increase in racial, gender, and ethnic diversity has followed these increases in compensation, though most state legislatures are still dominated by white male baby boomers. For more information, visit https://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/who-s-the-average-state-legislator-depends-on-your-state-magazine2020.aspx.

Consituents might consider salary options for their elected officials according to two baseline decisions: 

What will we pay legislators to do?

The basic functions of the legislative branch are to create law and policies, serve constituents, and check the power of the other branches of government. In New Mexico, lawmakers attend a 60-day session one year and a 30-day session the next, attend regular meetings of interim committees from May through at least November, show up for special or extraordinary sessions when called upon, and respond to constituent needs–while also having to find ways to finance their next election. Paying a salary will recognize the work New Mexico lawmakers already do. 

How much should we pay them? 

Only the most populous states in the country pay their legislators a full-time salary, meet year-round, and provide individual lawmakers their own staff support. The best-paid legislators–in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Massachusetts–work full-time and have staff. In the next tier are 26 states where legislators work approximately 2/3 of a full-time job, have some support staff, and earn a reasonable salary–but one usually too small for sole source of income. Citizen legislatures of the smallest states in population pay legislators a low salary for the equivalent of a half-time job and rarely provide support staff. (For 2021 legislator compensation rates, take a look at the latest figures.) In 19 states, a lawmaker’s salary is set by a commission, in others by reference to other state employee raises, and in only a few, by legislators themselves.

Taking the first step toward providing a living wage to New Mexico legislators is a major, worthwhile step forward, and Democrats should unite behind passage of a constitutional amendment that makes our legislature more functional, efficient, and diverse.This is so, even if devilish details remain to be decided in the session following passage of the amendment.