Who Are These Legislators We May Pay a Salary?

This is the fourth in a November series of articles in The Blue Review advocating paying New Mexico legislators a salary.

By Lance Chilton

Almost no one disputes the right of employees to ask for payment for their labor. We do in New Mexico: We are the only state in the country to offer our state legislators no salary whatsoever. The other 49 states pay their legislators wildly varying amounts–according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the annual amount offered in 2020 ranged from $100 in New Hampshire (the next lowest is $7,200 in Texas) to $114,877 in California. Some states (KS, KY, MT, NV, ND, UT, VT, WY) pay legislators by the day or week or month during the legislative session, and that pay varies from the equivalent of about $25/day in North Dakota to $285/day in Utah.

Two Democratic state representatives, Daymon Ely and Angelica Rubio, introduced House Joint Resolution 12 into the 2021 Legislature–the resolution would have placed a constitutional amendment on the 2022 ballot to eliminate the current clause (Article 4, Section 10) in the Constitution allowing no compensation for legislators. It would also set up a bipartisan commission to recommend salaries for them (and for members of the executive and judicial branches, as well). The resolution handily passed the House, was amended on the House floor and in the Senate Rules Committee, and died without action in the heavily burdened Senate Judiciary Committee as time ran out in the constitutionally-limited 60-day session. 

All states, including New Mexico, pay for mileage and an amount per diem, many based on reimbursement for the federal government’s employees deployed to various parts of the country, based on average costs for lodging, food and incidentals there. New Mexico’s legislative per diem rate is paid for the legislative session and for interim committee meetings.

According to FederalPay.org, “Santa Fe has a fixed per-diem rate set by the General Services Administration (GSA), which is used to reimburse overnight travel expenses within the area for Federal employees as well as employees of private companies which also use the GSA’s per diem rates.”  That rate for 2021 is $194 per day, and is the basis for the New Mexico State Legislature’s per diem rate, as set in our constitution. That Santa Fe is expensive will come as no surprise to most Blue Review readers.

One effect of not paying legislators is to limit service in the Legislature in large measure to those who are retired, those who are independently wealthy, or those whose occupations can be set aside for a period of time and then resumed when the session is over or whose employers will give them leave, perhaps as a way of influencing policy. A 2018 list of those who found it possible to serve included (among the 70 House and 42 Senate members) 14 who were retired, 17 attorneys, 29 businesspeople, 15 teachers and others involved in education, 6 consultants, 3 involved in energy production, 3 scientists/engineers, 2 in medical care, 4 in non-profits, 1 in tribal government, one miner, one clergyman and one policeman.  Are these occupations representative of New Mexico?  Is it likely that they would be more so if pay were not an issue?

Lobbyists in Santa Fe often serve up fancy meals and parties for legislators. Are the legislators more prone to accept these blandishments in the absence of being paid?  It probably will surprise no one if I state that the lobbyists expect their clients to benefit from these “free” gifts to our legislators.

It is my observation that our legislators work very hard on our behalf. Just as we pay our physicians and attorneys and tip our waiters and baristas and are charged enough so that stores can pay their workers to serve up those shirts and plumbing supplies and groceries, so also should we pay those who work for us in the Santa Fe Roundhouse.