New Mexico is America’s last holdout, the only state that doesn’t pay its legislators a base salary.
A proposed constitutional amendment to change that made it through its first legislative committee Saturday, advancing without a recommendation for approval.
Rep. Terry McMillan, R-Las Cruces, is sponsoring the bill. A surgeon, McMillan told members of the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee that New Mexico’s old-fashioned system of a nonsalaried Legislature ought to be scrapped.
“When we pay someone, we expect a higher degree of reliability, productivity and professionalism,” he said.
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said he supports McMillan’s bill because it would increase the pool of talent for seats in the 42-member state Senate and 70-member House of Representatives.
“We romanticize about the citizen Legislature, but in reality it’s not that because so few people can afford to serve,” said Maestas, an attorney.
Retirees and school district employees who receive leave from their jobs are both heavily represented in the Legislature.
McMillan is proposing that legislators be paid no more than $45,000 a year. That figure is about $4,000 more than the median household income in New Mexico last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Paying legislators a base salary of $45,000 would cost about $5 million annually. McMillan, though, has structured his proposal so that a lower salary schedule could be established.
Legislators now receive $163 a day for expenses when they are in session or on official business. They also can receive a state pension calculated on the amount they receive for expenses and their years of service.
McMillan’s bill survived its first committee, but it has long way to go to become law.
His measure would have to receive support from a majority of those elected in the House and Senate. Then the proposal would be placed on the ballot in November for voters to make the final decision.
Because this is an election year in which all 112 legislative seats will be filled, many lawmakers may be reluctant to support a salary for themselves for fear of alienating voters. In addition, New Mexico’s hopes of having more money to run state operations have diminished because of declining revenue from the oil industry that is critical to the state economy.