By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE – California pays its state legislators more than $95,000 a year — and gives them $141 for each day they’re in session.
And in Michigan, they receive $71,865 in salary — plus a $10,800 yearly expense allowance, no matter how far they live from the capital city of Lansing.
But in little New Mexico, lawmakers earn no salary at all.
That’s right — zero, zip, zilch.
“I think the system works just fine as it is,” state Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, told New Mexico Watchdog. “I like the idea that we’re true citizen-legislators, and I think most New Mexicans agree.”
New Mexico is the only state in the country that doesn’t pay legislators a salary. The only payment they get: a $154 per diem plus approved expenses, including mileage — which can add up in a state this expansive. At 121,589 square miles, it’s the fifth-biggest in the U.S.
“Legislators here have always voted against (granting salaries), I don’t know why,” said Rep. Henry “Kiki” Saavedra, D-Albuquerque, who’s been in the House of Representatives for 36 years. “But for me, it makes no difference.”
But don’t get the idea that lawmakers trekking to the state capital in Santa Fe are paupers.
The per diem and other expenses can add up, though they’re not intended as income. And lawmakers also qualify for a generous state pension:
*Should New Mexico legislators pay $600 a year to the the Public Employees Retirement Association, they become eligible for a pension. It’s a good deal for them: as others have pointed out, after 10 years in office, lawmakers can collect than $10,000 in their first year of retirement. In addition, they can stack that amount atop any other public-funded pension they may already receive.
*As for expenses, a recent review of the money paid to House and Senate members laboring in what’s called the Roundhouse (the New Mexico capitol building is circular) showed more than half of all lawmakers received more than $10,000 in per diem and approved expenses in 2012 and 17 of them made more than $15,000.
Still, that looks like a bargain for compared to some states. For example, the total for per diem and expenses last year for every one of the 112 New Mexico legislators came to $1.2 million ($10,714 per lawmaker). That $1.2 million would pay for just 9.7 legislators in the 120-member California State Assembly.
In general, most New Mexico Republicans like the no-salary system while most of the complaints come from Democrats.
“We’re not getting a good cross-section in the House and in the Senate because we don’t get a salary,” Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, said when New Mexico Watchdog posted a 4-minute video on the topic. “Making it as it is now is counter-productive.”
But Rep. Larrañaga, an 18-year Roundhouse veteran, says paying salaries would raise more questions that it answers.
“We’ll end up with the same situation that you see up in Congress,” he said. “How much do you have to get paid to be up here? Are you going to get someone for $20,000 a year to be a full-time legislator when we don’t need to be here all the time?”
New Mexico’s refusal to pay salaries is “a terrible idea,” said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat and one of the most liberal members of the Legislature. “And it leaves us very vulnerable to the influence of lobbyists. Not that they come pay us. But we don’t know enough about the issues, so we to have to rely on them and that leaves us very vulnerable.”
Defenders of the system point to states that pay full-time salaries to lawmakers and are still pushed around by lobbyists. They cite Illinois and New York, where lobbyists have been convicted of crimes involving influence.
Critics say the no-salary policy disproportionately favors older and retired candidates.
“For your young legislators, maybe they should get paid more because they leave their familes and they leave their jobs,” said Rep. Saavedra. “I’m retired so I don’t have to worry about that.”
“I think it gives us a skewed body that’s not representative of the state as a whole,” Sen. Ortiz y Pino said.
But Larrañaga points to the current New Mexico Legislature thats includes a number of active teachers, one doctor, one firefighter, a Sandia National Laboratories engineer, as well as the farmers and ranchers that accompany the usual high percentage of lawyers found in just about any political body.
“I don’t care where it is across the state of New Mexico,” Larrañaga said, “there’s always a candidate to run for the House or the Senate. We’ve not lacked for candidates, we’ve not lacked for talent.”
But a number of New Mexico Republicans do concede that they would like to see some money reserved for personal staff. Outside of leadership positions such as the Speaker of the House, lawmakers receive only limited support during the legislative sessions (which run just 30 days on even-numbered years and 60 days in odd-numbered years) and fend for themselves during interim committee meetings.
“Thank goodness my wife helps me but we don’t have any help,” Saavedra said. “We have to do it on our own.”
In the Watchdog video, then-Sen. Clint Harden, a Republican, said, “I got a call from one of my constituents who said, ‘Senator, you need to have your staff tell you to do a better job returning phone messages.’ And I said, ‘Ma’am, my staff is my wife opening the back screen door of the house and yelling, ‘Clint, check your archived messages.’ ”
Despite the occasional complaints, there’s little serious talk about changing the no-salary policy. Like so many other states facing tight budgets, New Mexico focuses its legislative priorities on jobs and balancing its budget.
“I am not sure if the public would go along with it because I think they feel that we don’t do anything anyway,” Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española said after the 2012 expense report showed him receiving $20,922, the highest total in 2012. Martinez favors establishing a salary system.
Can the New Mexico model work in other states?
“If you’re a heavily populated state like California, maybe you need a full-time legislature,” Larrañaga said. “But for New Mexico, which is low in population and per capita income … what we’ve got is still a good thing.”
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org