Salaries, Perks, and Protecting the Public Purse 

This is the last in The Blue Review series on paying legislators a salary.

By Jennie Lusk

Legislators may finally earn a salary after the 2022 regular session, and other directly elected statewide public servants may finally benefit from a mechanism designed to pay them a more competitive wage.

At least one initiative to begin paying state legislators a salary is already on the table for the January 2022 session. A Joint Resolution crafted by Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto would authorize the state Ethics Commission to establish legislative salaries as well as salaries for other directly elected statewide executives. If passed by the Senate, the measure will be put before voters at the November 2022 general election.

Establishing that legislators deserve a salary at the same time as assigning decision-making for how much and how often to pay future increases eliminates one of the most persistent problems in salaried legislatures: It spares legislators the politically unseemly task of raising their own salaries. In New Mexico, it’s not just unseemly for legislators to reward themselves; it’s unconstitutional. Almost 20 states now assign the task of establishing salaries to independent boards of one sort or another to avoid the problem of adjusting wages, but that leaves legislators in a majority of states vulnerable to “the pay problem.” Sen. Ivey-Soto’s bill steers clear of the pay problem from the outset.

Current New Mexico reimbursements and pensions are designed to soften the blow for legislators who serve for no salary. Legislators receive per diem reimbursements for travel and expenses of $166 per day during the January and February sessions, and $194 per day in March, as well as expenses for interim committee meetings, typically held between May and November. Lawmakers also have the option of receiving a defined benefit pension if they contribute $600/year, remain in office for 5 years before retiring, and elect to retire after a certain combination of age and years of service. The benefit is based on an 11% State contribution of the current reimbursement rate, as demonstrated by the Public Employees Retirement Association legislative retirement handbook. According to PERA’s calculations, a lawmaker can pay a total of only $6,000 over 10 years and, upon retirement at age 65, collect more than $10,000 per year for life.  

Paying legislators a salary can pose problems. For one thing, it can cause taxpayers to assume that they’re paid adequately. Not all “salary” constitutes a living wage. One example can be seen in Texas, where a 1930 constitutional amendment provided compensation of $10/day for the first 120 days of a regular session and $5/day thereafter. It took another 24 years before taxpayers adjusted salaries to $25/day for the first 120 days and eliminated the extra salary bump for extra days. In New Hampshire, lawmakers still make only $100/year, a token salary few would define as a wage. A second problem is that the political nature of legislative work can jeopardize nonpartisan legislative employees. For instance, Texas Governor Greg Abbot vetoed the entirety of the legislative budget last June in order to punish Democrats who left the state to avoid restricting minority voting rights. The Texas supreme court declined to step in to help 2100 nonpartisan researchers, auditors, and analysts whose salaries were caught up in the controversy. See https://www.texastribune.org/2021/06/03/texas-greg-abbott-veto-article-x/ .

Our lawmakers deserve a salary for the regular work they do appropriating money, working to address the concerns of constituents, solving and avoiding problems on behalf of New Mexicans. They more than earn their keep when they grapple with misconduct of state actors. New Mexico legislators certainly saved New Mexico voters a bundle by commencing impeachment proceedings against state treasurer Robert Vigil after the state supreme court refused to remove him from office, and their expertise served voters well in proceedings that also affected his predecessor in office, Michael Montoya ( https://www.bondbuyer.com/news/new-mexico-governor-asks-house-to-impeach-treasurer-bb232016). Vigil pled guilty in 2007 to state and federal charges and was sentenced to 40 months in prison for accepting kickbacks of commissions from investment brokers–including Guy Riordan, who earned more than $1 million in commissions and bonuses from doing business with the treasurer’s office between 1996 and 2002 (https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/former-treasurer-broker-shared-his-commission/article_6c7b1ade-d660-5036-b4bd-92ae876e9cde.html). Montoya pled to one count of attempted extortion and cooperated in prosecution of other kickback schemes.

The legislative branch, the judicial branch, and the executive branch all have the opportunity as well as the duty to act in the best interests of the public and protect the public purse. We don’t pay those elected to the judicial and executive branches a competitive salary. But it’s only legislators who currently are expected to act on the public’s behalf for no wage at all. It’s time to correct both the problem of establishing a wage for lawmakers and empowering the Ethics Commission to establish competitive wages and appropriate increases for elected officers in all three branches of government. The Senate Joint Resolution under consideration accomplishes both and deserves support.