Proposal calls for ethics agency to set NM elected officials' pay

·3 min read

Jan. 24—SANTA FE — A proposal to amend the state Constitution and pay New Mexico lawmakers a salary — for the first time — began moving through the Legislature on Monday.

The legislation, Senate Joint Resolution 8, would call on the State Ethics Commission to review and establish salaries for state elected officials in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

It would also make changes to the composition of the ethics commission, granting the Supreme Court authority to appoint two of the seven members.

New Mexico is now the only state that doesn't pay a salary to legislators, though they can qualify for a legislative pension plan and draw daily payments during the session and for attending meetings, based on federal per diem.

This year's daily rate ranges from $173 to $202, depending on the time of year — or about $5,200 for the 30-day session that just started.

"There's an argument that New Mexico has a tremendous tradition of volunteerism and public service," said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the proposal. "There's another argument that the people are getting what they pay for."

The proposal cleared the Senate Rules Committee on a 7-1 vote and heads next to the Judiciary Committee, potentially its last stop before the full chamber.

If adopted by the Legislature, the amendment would go before voters later this year.

Under the proposal, the ethics commission would set the salaries of about 330 state elected officials every two years, a group that includes legislators, judges and the governor.

Salaries for the governor and statewide officials are now set by law and haven't been changed in 20 years.

The last two governors — Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Susana Martinez — each vetoed proposals that would have raised their $110,000 annual salary.

Supporters of the constitutional amendment said it makes sense to grant the salary authority to an independent body, rather than having legislators and the governor periodically considering their own pay.

Voters "don't want us setting our own salaries," Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said. "I think the independent commission is the key to the success of this."

Much of Monday's debate focused on lawmakers' compensation. Common Cause New Mexico and other advocacy groups said offering a salary would broaden the pool of people willing to serve in the Legislature.

Few careers, they said, allow someone to take a month or two off each year to serve in Santa Fe everyday, in addition to interim hearings held throughout the year.

"We're going to really expand the universe of people who are able to serve if we do have a salaried legislature," Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, said. "Right now, it's largely the rich and retired."

Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, was the lone "no" vote against the proposal. He didn't elaborate on his opposition.

Past proposals to establish a legislative salary have failed repeatedly. Some opposition has focused on whether it would be appropriate to hand over spending power to an unelected body.