Legislator Salaries: Fundamentals

In November, the Blue Review will focus on legislative salaries as an issue deserving Democratic  support, in hopes that illuminating the problems of an all-volunteer legislature will help promote significant change. This is the first of a series of articles exploring the controversies surrounding the need for a paid legislature.

By Jennie Lusk

There are significant logistical problems in paying state legislators in New Mexico—all of which Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto has addressed in legislation he plans to introduce to the full legislature in January, “Depoliticized State Elected Officer Salaries.”

First, there’s the basic logistics problem: The New Mexico constitution requires that legislators serve without “compensation, perquisite or allowance.”  Since the state constitution prohibits paying legislators, those who want a salary must first pass a “joint resolution” to amend the constitution. If passed, the resolution will go on the November statewide general election ballot as a proposed amendment. If a majority of New Mexico voters ratify the amendment, legislators can be paid.

Second, New Mexico’s interpretive problem: The state constitution prohibits self-dealing by public officials, including legislators, by barring payment of extra compensation to any “public officer, servant, agent or contractor after services are rendered” and prohibiting the compensation of any officer to be “increased or diminished during his term of office.” If legislators vote to pay themselves a salary any time before their terms expire, they would violate the constitutional prohibition on self-dealing.

Next, the problem of popular impression: Some people question whether New Mexico legislators deserve a salary, noting that they are in session only 60 days in odd-numbered years and 30 days in even-numbered years. Actually, legislators also work in the interim, most attending at least one committee meeting a month from May to November. They often are called by the governor to “special” session or convene in an “extraordinary” session. A good legislator is readily available to constituents almost 24/7, as well. Only the rarest of jobs allows for such frequent absences. Public sympathy for legislators has been eroded by the conduct of dishonest legislators who help themselves through apparently legitimate appropriations and befriend lobbyists for issues the public has entrusted them to resolve on merit.

The constitutional and integrity problems combine to make change to a salaried legislature a real challenge, but the status quo means that the State’s 112 legislators must be “rich, retired or resourceful,” according to Sen. Ivey-Soto.

His solution to help taxpayers identify public servants who fairly, consistently, and honestly serve the best interests of the state is tasking the state’s ethics commission to set and regularly review legislator salaries as well as salaries for statewide elected officials. The ethics commission is comprised of people who can’t currently be or have served in the past 2 years as a public employee, candidate, lobbyist, government contractor or office holder in a state or federal political party.  

The purpose in drafting the joint resolution to pay other statewide officers whose salaries are established by constitution or law while establishing payment for legislators is to garner broad public support, Sen. Ivey-Soto explained. As a legal matter, getting a raise as a governor, state auditor, state treasurer, attorney general, Court of Appeals judge or Supreme Court justice or Commissioner of public lands is next to impossible because of the self-dealing provision. The New Mexico judiciary is 47th in the nation in pay, earning less than 70% of the private bar, Sen. Ivey-Soto has pointed out, and statewide elected officials in the executive branch generally earn less than their senior staff members. “We have a systemic problem,” the Senator explained. “The last time the executive (department) got a pay raise was in the Gary Johnson administration” (1995 to 2003). His belief is that paying more competitive salaries will improve the quality of candidates seeking office and working on behalf of government.  

New Mexico is now the only legislature in the country where representatives and senators serve as volunteers, being reimbursed for expenses but receiving no pay for the work they do. Nationwide, legislative salaries range from over $100,000 for the full-time California legislature to $100 in salary for New Hampshire legislators. See a state-by-state comparison at https://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/2021-legislator-compensation.aspx.

“We need to depoliticize all the elected officials in terms of salary,” Sen. Ivey-Soto concludes. “Then we will get closer to the value of what these positions should pay.”  

Check back with the Blue Review during the month of November to consider various aspects of Sen. Ivey-Soto’s proposal and others that could ensure people from all walks of life can afford to serve as legislators.