New Mexico eyes salary for nation’s only unpaid legislature

March 7, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The nation’s only unsalaried legislature is reconsidering its volunteer work ethic.

The New Mexico House of Representatives on Wednesday endorsed a constitutional amendment that would do away with the state’s prohibition on legislative compensation and create a commission to set salaries. The 44-24 vote sent the measure to the Democrat-controlled Senate, where approval would trigger a decisive statewide vote.

New Mexico is the only state where lawmakers receive no salary for their work, though taxpayers foot the bill for travel expenses and an allowance for meals and lodging when the Legislature is in session. Many lawmakers also have access to public pension benefits.

Advocates for professionalizing the Legislature say the current system discourages young, working class candidates from serving and can inhibit work on complex policy issues as legislators juggle separate paid and political careers.

“How do we open our government so that all people can serve?” said Rep. Melanie Stansbury of Albuquerque, a proponent of adding salaries. “Right now you have to have the time and the means to be here. ... That doesn’t make it possible for the vast majority.”

Legislators in the Republican minority voted against lifting the salary ban with some absences, while Democrats openly fretted that their support would be misconstrued as a self-imposed pay raise.

Final decisions on salaries would be left to a seven-member commission. Two members of the commission would be appointed by Legislative leaders. Other appointments would be left to the governor, chief justice of the Supreme Court and the commission itself.

Republican Rep. Greg Nibert of Roswell praised the state’s tradition of unsalaried public service and limited government.

“I think that the people who have elected me in my district are concerned about the growth of government,” he said.

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