COMMENTARY: The fact that New Mexico Legislators are unpaid is a quaint reminder of our past. Certainly, in the early years of our state, this arrangement was necessary and appropriate because of the small size and budget of state government at the time.
The notion of a “citizen legislature” also carried a certain romantic appeal outside the pragmatic. The establishment of a nation or state historically has always been fueled by large inputs of volunteerism, and it is natural to think that if volunteerism was good enough then, it is certainly good enough now.
And isn’t it true that volunteers are more honestly motivated?
One of the first things any growing community will do when it has the resources is to convert volunteer services to paid, or salaried ones. We prefer, when we can afford it, to have paid rather than volunteer fire departments, law enforcement, health-care workers, and teachers, to name a few. The reason is that we rightly expect increased reliability, productivity, and professionalism when we pay for services as opposed to them being provided voluntarily.
In addition, as those same communities grow, the complexity of meeting the community’s needs increases beyond what volunteerism can be expected to supply.
Why would we not expect the same of legislators in a state now over 100 years old? All the larger municipalities and counties in New Mexico provide salaries for city councilors and county commissioners.
Similar effect to that of a poll tax
We have a “citizen legislature” in that, because our legislators are unpaid, all must have outside jobs, businesses or sources of income. On the one hand, this circumstance could be seen as producing a fair sampling of working New Mexicans from all walks of life, with valuable expertise from those experiences. On the other hand, does it not also follow that each of these working New Mexicans, dependent on the stream of income from their various employers, retirement plans or businesses, may bring conflicts of interest with them?
Our “citizen legislature” is more properly termed a “volunteer legislature.” One of the most difficult problems with this approach is that, by creating a financial hurdle potential candidates for office must clear, we are excluding New Mexicans from participation. It would be very difficult to quantify this effect, but I maintain that at the minimum, a majority of New Mexicans are excluded because they simply cannot afford to participate.
This effect on participation in our democratic process is little different, I suggest, than that of a poll tax. I doubt any of my own employees could seriously consider a run for the state Legislature for this very reason, as they could not afford the unpaid time off. Paradoxically, we have legislators who are public employees, who continue to be paid despite the requisite absence from their positions; this, in effect, represents taxpayer subsidies for some, but not all legislators.
New Mexico is a relatively small, rural state, but is no longer a part of the “frontier.” New Mexicans, I believe, are sophisticated enough to know that their interests are best represented by an inclusive, motivated, professional, 21st century legislature. We are the only state not to have made that decision; the time has come.
McMillan, a Republican, represents the Las Cruces-area District 37 in the New Mexico House of Representatives. In the current session, he has sponsored legislation to ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to pay legislators.