COMMENTARY: In 1912, 73 men came together on a cold Santa Fe morning and convened the first state legislature. These were largely land-grant owners, ranchers, and they served a population of 327,301 (1910 Census Bureau figure).
In 2015, 112 men and women came together on a cold January day in Santa Fe and convened the 103rd legislature. This group, unlike the first, came from a wide variety of occupations, not only ranchers, but teachers, lawyers, even a solar-system salesmen. They served a population of 2,085,572 (2014 Census estimate) and worked with a total budget of almost $18.3 billion.
The issues the first legislature faced in starting a new state were by no means simple, yet today we grapple with evermore complex issues related to infrastructure, water rights, education, an economy hindered by over-reliance on too few industries, and complex poverty issues that affect the well-being of everyone in the state.
It is time to rethink how our Legislature operates and how much we can fairly expect out of the men and women who serve it in. I propose that the state would benefit greatly with a few changes in how we do business in Santa Fe.
Lots of work, no pay
While our legislators do receive per diem, they are not paid. In fact we are the only state in the entire country where this is the case. This seems unfair given that most are leaving businesses and careers unattended for a time to serve their constituents.
Unlike the 1912 legislators, this is not just a short month of work in January and February, when work on the ranch is slow. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that our people spend just about 50 percent of their time on legislative matters.
One legislator I contacted, Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, told me, “ It depends on the week. but since I am on four interim committees, in most weeks it is 30 hours minimum, sometimes more.”
That’s 75 percent of his work week. Ask yourself this: Would you take on a second 3/4 of a job for no pay?
Most people couldn’t, even if they wanted to serve. Paying legislators would undoubtedly increase the number of people who would be able to consider running for a position, increasing the diversity and expertise in the Legislature.
With pay, more time to work
Hand-in-hand with pay is the issue of how short our sessions are. If we were to pay our legislators, we could increase the time spent in Santa Fe for sessions. This could greatly improve the entire process.
If each year’s session were 75-to-90 days, for example, more time would exist for individual legislators to examine bills on the floor and attend the necessary committee meetings. We could end the practice of passing nearly all bills at the very end of the session and allowing the governor to veto bills days after everyone has gone home, which forces time to be taken, a year later, for overrides.
That practice gives the governor far more power than the office should have in a good system of checks and balances. The ability to override should occur within the same session.
Longer sessions would also allow legislators’ bills not on the governor’s agenda to be considered every year, not just in odd-numbered years, allowing for more ideas to flow from the Legislature. That would create a more nimble and responsive Legislature.
Are these ideas radical? Not really — 49 other states are run like this, and nearly all of them rate higher than we do on a variety of issues. More time spent trying to improve our state, treating our legislators fairly and recognizing the extreme time commitment we ask of them, doesn’t seem particularly radical either.
Too expensive? At say $25,000 a year for each of our 112 legislators, it’s roughly $3 million — not much out of an $18.3 billion budget. Is it doable? Yes, if we have the will to improve our system, rather than insist that the old ways are always the best, even when circumstances have changed over a century.
Anderson, of Farmington, is a past Democratic Party county officer and member of the party’s state central committee and has been active in several political campaigns. Today she follows politics avidly as a concerned citizen. She considers this topic to be strictly bipartisan, something everyone can get behind.