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By Dan McKay
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Proposals could reshape NM Legislature

 

Last updated 3/13/2021 at 4:47pm



SANTA FE — Two proposals working their way through the Roundhouse have the potential to reshape New Mexico’s citizen Legislature — one by establishing salaries for lawmakers, the other by reviewing the need for staffing and transparency.

Both measures passed the House last week and will have to move quickly in the Senate to have a chance at final approval. The 60-day session ends at noon Saturday.

Supporters say the proposals would modernize the only Legislature in the country where lawmakers don’t draw a salary.

Instead, New Mexico legislators get daily payments — based on federal per diem — during the session to cover the costs of lodging, food and similar expenses.

This month the pay is $194 a day, or $29 more than it was in February.

Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a nonpartisan advocacy group, said state lawmakers take up complex legislation without much staff help, a system that can result in heavy reliance on lobbyists.

Most lawmakers are either retired or have careers that let them take breaks for legislative sessions and meetings. An adequate salary — depending on the level — might broaden the pool of people who can serve and allow them to focus on public work, supporters say.

“This would be a good step forward” for lawmakers, Ferguson said. “It’s incredibly challenging to try to manage the thousands of bills that are introduced, understand them, grasp them and then move them.”

Previous attempts to pay legislators a salary have failed to gain traction at the Roundhouse in recent years.

Republican Rep. Ryan Lane of Aztec said the salary commission isn’t the right approach. It would violate the constitutional separation of powers by restricting the Legislature’s control of the “purse strings” of government.

The proposed commission, for example, would set salaries for about 240 officials, not just legislators.

“If you create this commission,” Lane said Wednesday, “you have seven unelected people who are not accountable to the people of New Mexico who are going to be responsible for salaries. I think it’s a bad concept.”

The two proposals are now pending in the Senate after winning passage in the House, mostly along party lines with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed:

• House Joint Resolution 12 would ask voters to amend the state Constitution to establish a Public Officer Salary Commission that would set the annual pay of the governor and other statewide elected officials, judges and justices, and legislators, among other others.

The new salaries would kick in July 1, 2024, and wouldn’t require legislative approval.

It’s sponsored by Democratic Reps. Daymon Ely of Corrales and Angelica Rubio of Las Cruces.

• House Bill 301 would establish a Legislative Process Review Commission that would develop policy proposals on legislative transparency, compensation, staff support, session rules and procedures, the capital outlay process and public access.

It would submit a report in fall 2022. The bill is sponsored by Rubio and Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-Albuquerque.

Stansbury said the Legislature should take a fresh look at how it operates and how to better address the complex challenges facing New Mexico, taking into account best practices in other states and good government principles.

It’s been at least 14 years since a similar effort was undertaken, she said, and only some of those suggestions resulted in change.

This year’s bill “is really about improving the fundamental processes of the Legislature so we can solve the challenges that our state faces,” Stansbury said.

 
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