Proposal would give unpaid New Mexico lawmakers a salary

Jul. 27—As members of the only Legislature in the country that serve in office for free, New Mexico lawmakers are once again broaching the politically thorny idea of giving themselves a salary.

But they're hoping to avoid the predictable backlash by letting others decide what the amount should be.

A proposed constitutional amendment presented Monday to the Legislature's Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee would put the decision-making in the hands of the State Ethics Commission, which would review and establish salaries for legislators every two years.

Under the proposal, which would require voter approval, the commission also would set the salaries of all elected officers of the executive and judicial branches of state government, some of whom are underpaid compared with their peers.

"The problem is not just a legislative branch problem," said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who plans to introduce the proposal during next year's 30-day legislative session. "The problem affects all three branches of government."

While some elected officials may earn less than others in similar positions, lawmakers are unpaid.

"We have it in our Constitution that we shall not be paid," Ivey-Soto said. "There's been a fair amount of history on this over the years where there's been attempts to change the narrative, and part of the problem is the general public thinks we're overpaid as it is because, after all, what rational person would do what we do for nothing?"

Though lawmakers collect per diem and are eligible for pension benefits, some contend the lack of a set salary limits who can serve in the Legislature.

"The idea that one needs to be a lawyer, independently wealthy or extremely resourceful to be able to even think about running is one of the main key points that I applaud [in] this effort," said Rep. Roger Montoya, D-Española, who runs a nonprofit.

Ivey-Soto said the Legislature was "comprised of the three R's: the rich, the retired and the resourceful."

"This will open up who gets to serve," he said. "This is going to continue that process of changing the face of who runs."

Montoya called the plan to place the responsibility of setting salaries on the Ethics Commission "rather crafty and good."

Sonny Haquani, a spokesman for the commission, said neither the agency nor commissioners had a comment on the proposal "at this time."

"I think the standpoint that came out in the last instance where this policy was raised was that the Ethics Commission will do whatever the Legislature asks of it essentially but that this isn't something that we're necessarily advocating for or against," he said.

In addition to having the Ethics Commission set the salaries of elected officials, the proposal also calls for transferring to the state Supreme Court the authority to appoint two Ethics Commission members. Currently, four commissioners appointed by legislative leaders pick those two members.

Lawmakers on the legislative committee expressed support Monday for the proposal.

"Having been around here for a while and seeing the struggles with all three branches, I think this reform is long overdue," said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who has served in the Legislature since 2004, first as a state representative and now as a senator.

"I appreciate the way you've built the Ethics Commission in as the body to make that decision and think this is something I hope we can move forward and send to the voters," he said.

Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, however, questioned why legislators deserved a salary after abdicating their responsibilities. For example, he said, a citizen committee is overseeing redistricting, or redrawing New Mexico's political district boundaries.

"Now we want to go to having the Ethics Commission set the salaries for everybody," he said. "Where are we going to stop? Is the next bill that you're going to propose a legislation that we want to have a budget committee comprised of citizens that will decide the budget of the state of New Mexico? How much longer are we going to continue giving up what we are constitutionally supposed to do?"

Ivey-Soto noted the Citizen Redistricting Committee will make recommendations and that the "ultimate decision" will be the Legislature's.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said Ivey-Soto's salary proposal didn't go far enough. Although compensation is a "major factor," Sedillo Lopez said the proposal doesn't change the structure of the Legislature "to make it have the ability to do its job."

"We are an extremely weak branch of the government structurally," she said. "When you look at the fact that we don't get staffs and how part time we are, we are, I believe, the weakest Legislature in the country that way."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.