Legislators Caught in Antiquated System

In November, the Blue Review is focusing on legislative salaries as an issue deserving Democratic support, in hopes that giving context to the problems of an all-volunteer legislature will help trigger significant change. This article is part of that series.

By Former Senator Dede Feldman (District 13)

For two decades, New Mexico legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, have known that serving in an unpaid, largely understaffed body charged with making decisions that affect the lives, health and livelihood of millions is a losing proposition. The losers are not just the exhausted legislators who struggle to balance day jobs, interim committees, demanding constituents, public scrutiny, and complex issues. It is the entire state, long-bashed by critics on all sides for lagging behind others in economic development and education. Our state deserves a modern, salaried legislature with lengthened sessions and adequate staff to tackle the complex issues we face. No one knows this better than the legislators themselves.

During my tenure in the Senate, I saw scores of bills introduced to remedy the situation by paying legislators, in one way or another, or at least compensating them for the time and money they spend on constituent services, studying the issues in interim committee or making important decisions during the session.

In 2002, Rep. Leo Watchman, from the Navajo reservation, suggested that salaries be pegged at no more than the average of what legislators are paid in the five contiguous states. Five years later, Rep. Ken Martinez and Sen. Mary Jane Garcia suggested a salary of 15% of what NM Supreme Court Judges are paid. The same year, Sen. Shannon Robinson suggested that it be the same salary that Class A county commissioners earn. In 2012, I suggested an annual $10,000 reimbursement for constituent services, which many legislators now pay out of campaign funds. 

It wasn’t just Democrats who realized legislators need to be paid. Republicans knew, too. In 2003, Sen. Allen Hurt, a doctor from the Farmington area, proposed legislators receive an annual salary equal to the federal poverty level for a family of four—to be used solely for constituent services. In 2008, Sen. Leonard Lee Rawson proposed the salaries be 15% of U.S. Congressional salaries; in 2016, Rep. Terry McMillan suggested annual salaries equal to the median New Mexico household income.

In the past several years, legislators have returned to this theme, with more suggested constitutional amendments, mostly referring the matter to commissions at arms-length from the legislature, since members are barred from directly increasing salary levels for themselves by the constitution. The issue will resurface again this coming session.

This time, there is a new crop of legislators—many of them younger women trying to juggle families, COVID, and the need to quickly gain understanding of complex issues like utility regulation, broadband, and water rights. Rep. Tara Lujan, who considers herself a member of a “working moms” caucus in the House, is trying to homeschool her second-grader and get up-to-speed on the issues in nine different interim committees. She had to quit her full-time job because it conflicted with legislative service, which now takes up all her time. She’s living off her savings. “It’s unsustainable,” she says.

“All that juggling affects who can serve,” says another new House member, Rep. Linda Serrato, from Santa Fe. “Society has changed. We used to be able to depend on abuelos or grandparents to help with childcare, but times have changed.” Serrato says that she really wants to give the issues her full attention but, without staff, it’s difficult. She and another legislator are currently sharing a part-time college student to assist them. “Otherwise, you end up depending on lobbyists for information. It’s not the same as a staff.” 

Both legislators said a salary would make all the difference. Lujan said she would not have to look for work and Serrato said it would allow her to give up her day job.

Perhaps the best example of how the lack of salary affects who can serve is former Rep. Linda Trujillo, also from Santa Fe. Now employed by the state, she quit the citizen legislature in July 2020, in the middle of her term. A lawyer, she had cut back her practice by 25% and said she simply could not make ends meet. 

“I’m not the only one who is financially struggling in the legislature,” Trujillo told the Santa Fe New Mexican at the time.

The cost of public service is limiting those who run and serve, with younger, working-age legislators with lower incomes than those who own businesses or are retired still in the minority—and burning out. The policies that come out of the antiquated structure, set by the constitution in 1912, are not the flexible, innovative, representative ones we deserve.

It’s long past time to enter the modern era, with a salaried legislature, a longer session, and a staff that reduces dependence on lobbyists and allows elected representatives and senators to better serve their constituents. 

Dede Feldman currently serves as a consultant to Common Cause New Mexico.