New Mexico could break its taboo on salaries for legislators
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico legislators could receive state salaries for the first time as the result of a newly proposed constitutional amendment.
A panel of legislators led by state Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque endorsed the proposed constitutional amendment Wednesday that would give the recently founded State Ethics Commission authority to set salaries for lawmakers and other elected official including the governor.
New Mexico runs the only unsalaried legislature in the nation, though members receive a $162 daily stipend during sessions and reimbursement for some travel expenses.
Amendment sponsor Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat, said that handing over salary decisions to the ethics commission would depoliticize the matter and avoid the taboo against lawmakers approving their own pay.
“There is no ability for us to even consider whether there should or could be an appropriate level of salary for the work that we’ve done,” Ivey-Soto said. “If we were to do it, then we’re self-dealing.”
Ivey-Soto’s proposal would place salary decisions for a long list of elected state and county officials under the authority of the ethics commission. Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell worried that might be “punting a little bit of our legislative authority” to approve state spending.
Constitutional amendments approved by the Legislature still require ratification by statewide vote.
New Mexico’s ethics commission was approved by voters in 2018 in the wake of a string of public corruption scandals as an arbiter of complaints against public officials, lobbyists and contractors. It opened its doors this month. Its members are appointed by leading legislators from both parties and the governor.
New Mexico’s “citizen legislature” of volunteer politicians has long been a source of civic pride in the state.
At the same time, safeguards against self-enrichment by lawmakers have come under greater scrutiny with the conviction of former state Sen. Phil Griego on fraud and felony ethical violations for using his Senate position to profit from the sale of a state owned building.
“I don’t think the public even believes that we don’t get paid because what rational person would do what we do for free?” Ivey-Soto said.
Watchdog groups including Common Cause support efforts to pay New Mexico legislators a salary to help eliminate financial conflicts of interest between legislative duties and outside careers.
Common Cause Executive Director Heather Ferguson said legislative salaries can help bring greater socioeconomic diversity to the Legislature, making it more viable for working-class parents to participate if elected.
The proposed constitutional amendment as currently written would take effect with the arrival of a newly elected House and Senate in 2021, though new salaries would not be implemented before 2023.