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We need to pay our legislators

By | 9/16/11, 9:18 am | Commentary

Heath Haussamen

Our unpaid legislators can’t keep up with the governor or the pace of life in the 21st Century no matter how hard they work

The raging battle in Santa Fe about whether lawmakers are working hard enough points to a deeper issue.

Our unpaid legislators can’t keep pace with the governor no matter how hard they work. The executive branch has the upper hand every time it engages the legislative branch.

Lawmakers also can’t keep up with quickly changing times. Put simply, our legislative branch isn’t designed or equipped to respond to the pace of life in the 21st Century.

It’s time to pay our legislators.

During the current session, Gov. Susana Martinez and House Republicans are constantly accusing Democrats of stalling their agenda and not working. Many Democrats say they’re working hard, and there’s plenty of evidence that at least some are doing just that.

Democratic leaders insist they have to focus on the task at hand, redistricting, rather than other items Martinez put on the call for the special session. She obviously wants them to work on her other agenda items too.

The fight is consuming the session, with daily news releases coming from Republicans accusing Democrats of not working and from Democrats highlighting what they’re doing.

Martinez is going to win the political battle. Many people already think their politicians aren’t working for them. But political fighting aside, the reality isn’t black and white: Some lawmakers are working their tails off while others are spending their days relaxing.

Our unpaid legislators do earn per diem, but most use much of it up on hotels, food and gas. Meanwhile, with the exception of those who live in and around Santa Fe, they have to travel far from home and put aside their families and their jobs – their sources of income – to do the work of their constituents.

You could argue that they knew that when they ran for office, and legislators should be willing to work hard when they get to Santa Fe regardless of whether they’re being paid. On the other hand, some will argue that a part-time, unpaid legislature should be expected to do, at most, part-time, unpaid work.

In other words, you get what you pay for.

Legislative and executive branches aren’t equal

Martinez and former Gov. Bill Richardson have quite dominant personalities and are masters of political skill. Both repeatedly backed the Legislature into corners, like Martinez is doing now. She wins either way: Lawmakers pass her agenda, or the public thinks they’re lazy.


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What else should we expect from a system in which the legislative and executive branches of government aren’t equal? A full-time governor who is paid a good salary and gets other perks including a mansion leads the executive branch. She has an army of full-time staffers working for her.

The lack of pay, meanwhile, dramatically limits who can serve in the Legislature, affecting the quality of the legislative branch and limiting the accountability that is inherent in a threat of losing the next election. Generally, those who can afford to serve now include people who are wealthy, successfully self-employed, retired or top government employees. Many run unopposed every election cycle or don’t have serious challenges.

If we paid lawmakers a part-time salary, say $25,000 a year, we’d dramatically increase the potential pool of candidates. And, because they would be making some money, lawmakers would have a greater responsibility and ability to focus on the job.

It would also take away any excuses based on a sense of entitlement. I can’t tell you how frustrated I got every time I heard then-Sen. Shannon Robinson argue against ethics reform during the 2007 session. He essentially said that, because lawmakers weren’t paid, it was unfair to take away things such as meals paid for by lobbyists.

It’s reasonable to suspect, then, that if you pay legislators, and take away that argument against ethics reform, you could create a legislative branch with a stronger commitment to ethical behavior, in addition to one that’s committed to working harder.

Today’s pace means working more

Legislative leaders know they’re at a disadvantage against the governor. That’s one reason they dug their heels in when Richardson pushed them, and it’s one reason they’re doing it now. During the Richardson years, fights between the governor and the Senate weren’t about policy. They were about personalities.

Such fighting has nothing to do with what’s best for New Mexicans.

Our lawmakers need the foresight to realize that one of the most important things they can do is try to level the playing field by seeking a constitutional amendment that allows them to be paid. Some might lose re-election because of it, but in the end the legislative branch would be stronger. That would be good for New Mexico.

It would also be good for Martinez’s agenda. She wants lawmakers to work harder. If they were paid, legislators would have no excuse to do anything less. Martinez should support a constitutional amendment to pay legislators.

Our Legislature is designed to meet to address policy issues once every two years. Such infrequent meetings might have worked at some point in New Mexico’s history, during a slower time. But life moves quickly today, and government must be able to adapt.

That means working more, which we’re already demanding from our lawmakers. Special sessions have become the norm. The job has outgrown what can be done by unpaid lawmakers.

We need to pay these folks.

This shouldn’t be a political battle. We should have a Legislature that’s able to consider serious policy issues as they need addressed – not just once every two years.

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MzO12:22 September 21, 2011

I don’t know, I am not sure paying them would make them work any harder. The threat of being voted out of office should be incentive enough. They do get a per diem. I think that paying them would attract more people who just want to earn money without having to do that much, rather than people who really want to try to make a change.

durablebrad02:38 September 19, 2011

Heath,

I suggest $15 an hour plus expenses… and that’s my final offer. LOL!

aliregarcia23:57 September 18, 2011

Very strong argument here, IMHO. I totally agree.. but I’m a tad pessimistic that such an amendment would pass the voters’ test. Of course, we won’t know until a full-time legislature is put to a vote….

new_mexican15:06 September 17, 2011

Well, well, well! We finally agree on something. It would serve us all better if we paid them a decent salary. How many people do you know who have this type of time to serve for nothing.

demrep13:16 September 17, 2011

Many of them already get paid plenty, under the table or by taking advantage of their position to capitalize on insider information or special deals, or making sure their familiy members get good paying jobs that don’t require them to work.

Mr. Magoo12:19 September 17, 2011

I reviewed the legislature web site to review their occupations. The most frequent were educators, lawyers, and retired. For those not retired there are a quite a large number that are employees of public school systems, city and county governments, or other public financed organizations. Do these people not receive their regular pay while they are serving as legislatures? While I agree that the amount legislatures receive for per diem does not cover the high cost of staying in Santa Fe, do we let legislatures who are public employees “double dip”?

larryg05:55 September 17, 2011

Heath’s suggestion is at best a partial answer to a real problem. Legislators I know work full time or nearly that at serving us. There is committee assignment work outside the sessions, research, and communication with constituents to be done year round. And running for office is part of the job that takes a lot of time. Heath leaves undiscussed whether it is $25,000 for a 30 day or 60 day session. Even at the more generous amount it’s still part time pay for a full time, possibly short term job which would not allow that many more people to particpate. Public service used to be considered a civic responsibility, not a profession. Do we want to emulate the federal level on this? And next would be a full-time staff for each legislator to match the governor’s resources.

A better solution might be a part time governor.

wedum5900:33 September 17, 2011

You might find it instructive to interview some former legislators, for example former HD 54 rep Joe Stell, who served in the legislature for 20 years. He is a rancher and therefore an independent businessman (one you call “successfully self-employed”).

Dr. J21:10 September 16, 2011

When they are worth something and actually do something of value for society, pay them. Today they are properly compensated.

Ramirez12:43 September 16, 2011

Yes! I agree Heath. Until then, we will be subject to a very small selection of potential candidates: Those that have large sums of personal wealth, and retirees. I know many young folks that would love to run, and serve in the Legislature. The truth is, they cannot afford to leave their jobs during the year to run, and work in the legislaure. This would weed out corruption, and provide us with a diverse array of individuals from various backgrounds.

Gregory Z. Smith12:24 September 16, 2011

Heath, yes, we should, but I’ve heard it suggested that the legislators are too fearful of not being re-elected to even propose it. Seems like sometimes you just gotta stand up for what’s right and then just take the lumps if that many people truly disagree.

DAVID11:36 September 16, 2011

I pray you are advocating this to the Governor.

The legislature may face a tough argument with today’s Tea Party spenders trying to give themselves a raise.

Show Me10:16 September 16, 2011

Even Gov. Carruthers, former head of Gov. Richardson’s Ethics Task Force understood that paying legislators IS ethics reform…But of course he never publicy fought for that or got his republican colleagues in the Leg. to support it. And therein lies the problem, politics. Its too easy to demagogue the issue of paying legislators, and than you have people of influence on the right, like Caruthers, who know the difference but dont have the leadership to stand up to his country club right wing buddies to do the right thing. WIthout real leaders and statesmen on the right and left thinking about our future, political hacks will continue to lurch us from one crisis to another…Oh well Heath, I do agree with you and so do many folks.

GFA09:52 September 16, 2011

Until we have true ethics reform and term limits should NM legislators be paid.

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