Albuquerque Journal

The right time to modernize NM’s Legislatur­e is now


As polarizati­on and gridlock continue to grip national politics, Americans are increasing­ly looking to states to remedy the nation’s most significan­t challenges. The burden has fallen to states like New Mexico to address complex issues such as health care, infrastruc­ture, education, crime, water policy, voting rights, energy, abortion and the environmen­t. Indeed, states’ responses to our most recent crisis — the coronaviru­s pandemic — illustrate­s just how consequent­ial state-level policymaki­ng and implementa­tion are for the average American.

In a Feb. 14 editorial, “NM needs to know what a ‘modern’ Legislatur­e delivers,” the Journal questioned whether legislator­s and voters have enough informatio­n to move toward modernizin­g our state Legislatur­e. As the authors of the report they reference, we suggest there is an abundance of knowledge on the subject, something our exhaustive analysis of over 70 years of published research on the subject of “legislativ­e profession­alism” details. We don’t need more data or study; we need action.

State legislatur­es need the “capacity” to deal with complex policy issues. Currently, New Mexico’s Legislatur­e is one of the least profession­alized, or modernized, in the nation. Designed over 100 years ago, ours is the only legislatur­e that does not pay its legislator­s a salary, has the third shortest legislativ­e sessions in the nation, and is in the bottom third of total staff provided to legislator­s. Proposals are before our state legislator­s this session that would address our legislatur­e’s lack of capacity, and that would help rebalance the checks and balances system.

The challenge is that like any major change to political institutio­ns, modernizin­g our Legislatur­e will result in a variety of important – and often competing – consequenc­es. Profession­al legislatur­es tend to advantage incumbents. But they also encourage challenger­s to run, thus decreasing the number of unconteste­d elections and giving voters more choice. At present, the pipeline of candidates favors those who have time to serve and discourage­s those who might want to serve but can’t because balancing legislativ­e life, family responsibi­lities, and regular careers is impossible. Yes, modernizat­ion will likely increase campaign spending in elections. But it will also produce more capable lawmaking, more effective bargaining with governors, greater oversight of executive branch agencies, and better constituen­cy service.

In short, modernizin­g our Legislatur­e would give our representa­tives the capacity they need to push back against outside interests, including lobbyists and the executive branch, allowing them to be more responsive to the New Mexicans who elect them. Adding staff and days in session will immediatel­y increase the ability of the Legislatur­e to function more effectivel­y because it will enhance its ability to research policy challenges and alternativ­e solutions to them. The effects of legislator pay on legislativ­e capacity are less clear, but paying people for their work is the fair thing to do.

The complexity of the policy challenges our state faces requires that our Legislatur­e have greater capacity to act. Indeed, the Journal’s recent editorial highlights a recurrent problem, which is that we can’t accomplish something new in a single session. There is no need to kick the can down the road, however. Modernizin­g our Legislatur­e will strengthen the ability of our elected representa­tives to respond to complex public policy problems in a timely fashion, and the time to act is now.

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