The 2023 NM Legislature is underway
As the 2023 New Mexico Legislature comes together for its opening day, we have the opportunity to create a modern body that can better serve New Mexico.
New Mexico In Depth’s Marjorie Childress reports on the nation’s only “citizen legislature.”
Common Cause NM’s top priority this session will be legislative modernization. We currently have the only unsalaried legislators in the country. Here’s why that no longer works:
- This system places a burden on ordinary, everyday New Mexicans who choose to serve as lawmakers. As a result, our legislature has been largely comprised of retired people, attorneys and wealthier individuals. But that is starting to shift, and our legislature is becoming more reflective and representative of our state, and we need to modernize now to keep our newest public servants in the Roundhouse.
- Since legislators must rely on other sources of income, there is a potential for conflicts of interest — both real and perceived. Even the perception of conflicts of interest poses a threat to our democracy by eroding public trust in our institutions.
- While our sessions are relatively short (more on that in a moment), lawmakers are still in Santa Fe for at least a month or two. In such a geographically large state, legislators in rural New Mexico must relocate for the session and/or spend a great deal of time and money commuting.
- Furthermore, while our sessions are short, legislators work year round, serving on interim committees, hosting town halls, and connecting with constituents. That’s just too much to balance while also maintaining a full-time job.
Now back to that part about our session lengths. New Mexico has the third shortest sessions in the nation. With just 30 days on even-numbered years and 60 days on odd-numbered years, we are at a disadvantage compared to other states who devote more time to address issues affecting their people.
- As a result of our short sessions, good bills with plenty of public support routinely fail to make it across the finish line because there simply isn’t time to debate them and amend them and move them through the chambers. This is a disservice to New Mexicans and a frustration for bill sponsors and supporters.
- With little time to spare as the session winds down, legislators spend the last weeks of the session hearing critical bills in the wee hours of the morning. This is bad for transparency since so many laws are considered when most of us are sound asleep. Furthermore, it is just poor practice. One could argue that few of us do our best work at 3 in the morning.
- Lastly, we face complex issues and problems worthy of thoughtful consideration. Our lawmakers would be better able to serve our state with more time allocated to the work. It takes time to craft solutions that would get New Mexico off the bottom of so many lists. New Mexicans deserve no less.
Apart from paying legislators a reasonable salary and extending the length of our sessions (to do so would require an amendment to our state constitution), we need to provide full-time staff and adequate office space in the districts for legislators. Currently, lawmakers only have staff during the session, with the exception of leadership.
- With no staff, legislators must frequently rely on lobbyists as “experts” on bills because they do not have policy analysts to help them consider the hundreds of bills they must review.
- Worse yet, without offices in the areas they represent and no staff for the vast majority of the year, legislators cannot provide the services they strive to offer, and constituents suffer. New Mexicans need responsive lawmakers who are able to help with time-sensitive matters. Paid staff would afford for better constituent services.
The reality is that many New Mexicans don’t even realize our legislators are unpaid volunteers. “…only about a third of New Mexico voters currently know how lawmakers are compensated. After the survey respondents were informed that lawmakers currently don’t make a salary, the clear majority said they were supportive of the proposal,” according to Brian Sanderoff of Research and Polling in Childress’ article.