NM needs to know what a ‘modern’ Legislature delivers
Yes, Jan. 6, 1912 — when New Mexico became the 47th state — was a long time ago. Roads were sparse and unpaved, most people moved about by horseback or carriage, few had phones and the burgeoning population was about 335,000.
The first state legislative session was in Santa Fe in 1912; lawmakers came from across the state and considered bills on teacher salaries, investments, land grant recovery and management of water resources.
Sound familiar? Yet New Mexico now has six times the population, a record $8.5 billion budget and issues never envisioned 111 years ago. Modernizing the Legislature makes sense, but we must know what problems that solves.
Lawmakers are considering several constitutional proposals that would overhaul the Legislature and its sessions including paying lawmakers a salary, increasing staffing levels, providing district offices and extending the length of sessions. Backers, so far Democrats and progressive advocacy groups, insist the time has come.
House Majority Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, says as a new legislator in 1996 most of her colleagues were wealthy, retired or both. But if Chasey looks around today, she’ll notice a new commonality: the speaker of the House (Javier Martínez), House minority leader (Ryan Lane), House minority whip (Greg Nibert), Senate majority leader (Peter Wirth) and Senate minority leader (Greg Baca), are all attorneys, as is Chasey. These lawyers occupy six of the top 10 posts of our “citizen” Legislature.
Supporters of a salaried Legislature say it’s difficult for young professionals with children to serve. But a new breed of community organizer now fills many of the 112 seats.
Then there are legislative leaders like former House majority leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, facing 26 felony and two misdemeanor counts for allegedly abusing her office to rout money meant for her employer, Albuquerque Public Schools, to businesses and charities she had an interest in. How would a modernized Legislature prevent that?
Supporters of a modernized Legislature frequently bemoan that New Mexico is the only state that doesn’t pay lawmakers a salary. But they do get a $178/day per diem while in session or at interim committee meetings, more than most New Mexicans earn in a day. State lawmakers also qualify for a generous pension after 10 years.
All that said, some of the constitutional proposals have obvious merit, such as House Joint Resolution 2, which would set the length of legislative sessions at 60 days every year. Limiting action to the budget and whatever is on the governor’s call in 30-day sessions in even-numbered years has been far from proactive governance and means the 60-day sessions in odd-numbered years, like this one, can be a free-for-all to try to get too much done.
A just-revised University of New Mexico study cautions some conclusions are “decidedly mixed” and warns “greater legislative professionalism produces” election advantages for incumbents, greater focus on reelection than legislation, more expensive campaigns and partisan voting and less turnover. Is that what we want? It also points out lawmakers met an average of 70.53 days each of the last 10 years, third shortest in the nation.
A 2007 study on restructuring the Legislature discouraged “the introduction of guests and performances on the floor.” And last month lawmakers approved spending $2.5 million on another study about the need for district staff offices for legislators. At first blush, extra staffing makes sense. But does every legislator need a staffed office? And does each legislator then take on the role of making personnel decisions regarding those staffers?
Bringing our circa-1912 Legislature into 2023 shouldn’t be done on a hunch or a whim — taxpayers deserve real data and answers to what a modern, paid Legislature will deliver that it isn’t delivering now. Details are crucial. Let’s hold off on votes, get those answers in hand, and lawmakers can then consider passing legislation during next year’s regular session. There will still be plenty of time for any constitutional proposals to go before voters for ratification in the 2024 November election.