Legislative candidates talk about pay, ethics and election reform

There’s lots of disagreement among legislative candidates about whether New Mexico should preserve its so-called “citizen legislature” or join every other state in paying lawmakers a salary.

A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

Paying legislators to work full-time would let them “more effectively examine and solve the critical educational issues, job development crisis, infrastructure problems and other needs,” says Joy Garratt, a Democrat running for the Albuquerque-area District 23 seat in the N.M. Senate.

“I wanted to run six years ago, but have waited until now when I am more financially stable,” Garratt said. “Many capable people cannot serve because they cannot afford the financial and employment stress of devoting winter months to legislative sessions.”

On the other hand, Democrat Jeff Varela, who is running for the Santa Fe-area District 48 seat in the N.M. House, opposes paying legislators right now. “With current public perception and lack of confidence in government, and due to current budget constraints, this is not a good period in time to consider such a proposal,” Varela says.

And Frederick Sherman, a Democrat running for the Deming-area District 32 seat in the House, says lawmakers should work to better the state as volunteers, being willing to “give it back or pay it forward. They should be examples for all.”

growing number of peoplemyself included, have come to believe the structure of our part-time, unpaid state Legislature – which affects the Legislature’s capacity, expectations, and ethics – is one of the biggest challenges to improving our state. With that in mind, NMPolitics.net asked questions of every state legislative candidate who has a primary race – several dozen in total – about improving the Legislature’s structure. They were given no word minimum or limit for responses.

We didn’t get as many responses as we’d hoped for. All three candidates in the Las Cruces-area House District 35 Democratic primary race answered our questionnaire, and we’ve already published an article on their responses. Only a dozen other candidates — out of several dozen facing primary races on June 7 — answered our questionnaire, so we decided to include all of their responses in this article.

Those candidates’ responses present a diversity of thought on whether lawmakers should be paid and other structural issues related to ethics reform and money in politics.

We’re publishing the full responses from the dozen candidates who responded verbatim (again, if you want to read more from the three Democrats running for House District 35, who also responded, click here). We asked four questions, and we’ve grouped responses by question (one candidate, Sherman, included his responses to all questions one short essay, so his full response is instead posted at the end of this article).

Here are the candidates’ responses:

1. New Mexico’s state legislators are the only in the nation who aren’t paid a salary. Many who serve in our Legislature struggle to balance their elected duties with jobs, families, and other responsibilities. If elected, how will you balance legislative service with other aspects of your life to be an effective policymaker?

Joy Garratt, Senate District 23, Democrat

Joy Garratt

Joy Garratt

Balancing life with service is a serious issue. Although I explored candidacy six years ago, I waited until my son was older, my mother-in-law adjusted to being a widow, and my husband and I both found stable employment to actually run for office. Serving in the Legislature may require that I take a different position at work or take a temporary leave of absence. On a very practical note, I anticipate living for part of the week in Santa Fe in order to fulfill my legislative responsibilities rather than commuting at extremely late or early hours and risking safety and health. It is because I have the full support of my husband who is fully aware of the sacrifice holding an office necessitates that I can run, and for him I am deeply grateful.

Mike Anaya, Senate District 39, Democrat

I have been a public servant and understand that it takes balancing day to day life with the service to the citizens we are elected to serve. Because, I am self employed I have the flexibility to be able to balance this difficult task. Additionally, I am no longer raising small children that can make the challenge even greater. Utilizing existing resources and stakeholders to help create policy and legislation has been a common practice in my prior years as a public servant.

Liz Stefanics, Senate District 39, Democrat

As of January 2017, I will have most of my time to devote to the legislative position. I will be receiving PERA and Social Security. I do not think I will have another full time paid position elsewhere but will still have personal and family responsibilities.

Chris Berkheimer

Chris Berkheimer

Chris Berkheimer, House District 25, Democrat:

I’m fortunate to have a private income. I worked hard to get it, don’t need much materially to be happy, have no vices, and manage my assets wisely.

Scott Chandler, House District 32, Republican:

If elected, I will give my utmost to the service of the constituents of District 32. In addition to the session activity, I envision office hours, community meetings, and other outreach. I will also remain a self-employed businessperson. In this context, as an at risk youth program director, I have been immersed in some of New Mexico’s deepest challenges. Additionally I worked for Border Foods in public relations, as a liaison between them and Government entities and as a negotiator while fully operating my other companies. The role at Border Foods put me squarely in the middle of negotiating between private industry and government entities. I worked closely with a team to resolve deeply complex issues, build positive relationships and continued to operate my private entities successfully. I believe my exposure to the issues implicated is an example of my experiences that will significantly benefit my work as a New Mexico legislator.

Raymundo Lara, House District 34, Democrat

All successful people find balance in their work and personal lives; to me it’s a matter of personal discipline and accountability to the people who depend on me. Working and interacting with the people in the communities is what I already do in my professional life, so the transition for me will be seamless. My approach to these duties will be proactive and engaging, this will allow me to be in contact with people in the communities, which I look to represent. People like the interaction, they like the fact that you take time to meet with them, it makes them feel that they are part of the process. I will set up community advisory panels in the different areas of District 34 where I will be able to meet and interact with the community on a regular basis to gain their prospective of what is of importance in their communities.

Mary Hotvedt, House District 38, Democrat

(Hotvedt combined this response with the response to the next question, so we’re including her responses to both questions in the next section.)

Jeff Varela

Courtesy photo

Jeff Varela

Jeff Varela, House District 48, Democrat:

I believe being elected to a citizen-service legislature requires a significant amount of personal time to serving during legislative sessions and during the interim. I will balance legislative service with my personal life carefully, in consultation with my constituents, leadership and my family.

Greg Nibert, House District 59, Republican

I will have to give up some of my current interests and activities. I will not be able to be as productive in my law practice for the month or so that the Legislature is in session. It is a trade off that I am willing to make.

Terry Fletcher, House District 69, Democrat

I am retired after 40 years in New Mexico. Therefore I feel I can devote the necessary time to the legislature not only during the sessions, but for interim committees also.

Harry Garcia, House District 69, Democrat

I personally am semi retired, so that allows me the time I need to be able to concentrate on being a good representative for my constituents.

2. Do you believe New Mexico’s state legislators should be paid a salary? Why or why not? If you think they should be paid, how much should they receive?

Joy Garratt, Senate District 23, Democrat

I believe that state legislators should be paid a salary and not just a $165 per diem. Devoting adequate time to researching, understanding and authoring legislation that addresses the needs of New Mexicans; meeting and listening to constituents; and traveling to meetings held throughout the state, if done thoroughly, require a full time commitment. Full time legislators could more effectively examine and solve the critical educational issues, job development crisis, infrastructure problems and other needs. I wanted to run six years ago, but have waited until now when I am more financially stable. Many capable people cannot serve because they cannot afford the financial and employment stress of devoting winter months to legislative sessions. Further research needs to be done regarding the amount of salary to be provided and where it will come from. $40,000 has been mentioned as a base figure, but I would need more information to support any given amount.

Liz Stefanics

Liz Stefanics

Liz Stefanics, Senate District 39, Democrat

Yes, I believe that legislators should be paid a modest salary – somewhere between $30,000 – 50,000. It would allow a greater number of people to consider running for office and not worry about a financial burden.

Mike Anaya, Senate District 39, Democrat

I am not running for office as a mechanism for pay, however I agree that the legislature should move in that direction. Politics and public office is all to often crafted for people with wealth. I do not have a lot of money and sacrifice to serve in the interests of the people. If there was a salary I believe it would encourage a broader base of people to serve that could then devote all of their attention to the elective office and the service of the people.

Chris Berkheimer, House District 25, Democrat

No. This is one aspect that makes NM unique. It also serves in its way as term limits for some legislators. A paid State Legislature would inject more money into an already corrupt process.

Scott Chandler, House District 32, Republican

Scott Chandler

Scott Chandler

I am not convinced placing legislators on a salary system is desirable at this time. The provision of a somewhat low salary, as occurs in some other states, is not, in my view, substantially different than New Mexico’s per diem system. Although 49 other states are on a salary system, due to our current economic status in New Mexico, I would want to evaluate facts and arguments presented to me regarding a possible change to the compensation structure for legislators. While citizens, local businesses, municipalities and government entities are having to tighten their belts, I would question the validity of resourcing this type of expenditure.

Raymundo Lara, House District 34, Democrat

We would have to ask ourselves what would come with that salary and how it would change the legislative landscape in NM. For example:

  • What additional costs would be incurred (e.g. paid staff, office space, utilities, and connectivity)?
  • Would it be an annual salary or would it be based on time at the session?
  • Would the legislator be considered an employee of the state and subject to all benefits and withholdings?
  • Would a salary create “professional” legislators and thus isolate them from their constituents?
  • Would a salary create opportunities for everyday citizens to become legislators?
  • Would paying legislators a salary improve or streamline the legislative process? If yes, how?
  • Would the salary be based on the cost of living in Santa Fe?

I feel that these are a few of the questions that should be answered before an actual salary amount is decided on. I’m open to an option that will benefit the taxpayers not only in the pocket book, but also at a local level where legislators should be meeting and learning from their constituents.

Mary Hotvedt, House District 38, Democrat

I am very aware that we are the last citizen legislature in the nation. The current system affects who can afford to run and what vested interests may be behind them.  We may be losing the opportunity to be better represented by a larger, more diverse pool of candidates. The voters need to decide the move to a paid system, which I would support if the financials warrant it. I do have the concern that at a time when we have so many budget and tax issues, going for a salaried legislature may look self-serving to our voters. For my own part, I am semi-retired and will have to give up my adjunct teaching for WNMU if I were elected. I have savings and income that would allow me to serve. What would suffer would be my other commitments to committees, boards, and my family time. I served as a president for a large mental health association and had to work daily for it as well as travel a large number of weekends. I learned how to balance that and a full-time private practice. Pay would need to be tied to the session time plus committee work. the exact amount the job is worth is hard for me to peg. To do the equivalent amount of work for my association, the stipend was around $30,000 plus expenses. However, if you peg legislative pay to the minimum wage, we might get the legislature to consider the economic dilemmas of many citizens.

Jeff Varela, House District 48, Democrat

At present time, I do not believe state legislators should be paid a salary. With current public perception and lack of confidence in government, and due to current budget constraints, this is not a good period in time to consider such a proposal.

Greg Nibert

Greg Nibert

Greg Nibert, House District 59, Republican

No I do not believe legislators should be paid a salary. I believe our citizen legislature should be maintained.

Harry Garcia, House District 69, Democrat

I am retired and will be able to serve on the legislature without pay, however I also believe that we would get more people interested in serving in offices if they could leave there work for 30 to 60 days and not loose so much money from their own employment.

Terry Fletcher, House District 69, Democrat

I think the NM legislature should continue to be non-salary. I do believe we are here to serve the public. I have never taken pay for any public positions I have held. I do think the expense reimbursement should be fair for the Santa Fe area.

3. Other than a salary, are there any other reforms you believe would improve our state’s legislative system? What changes, if any, do you support and why?

Joy Garratt, Senate District 23, Democrat

If legislators were paid, the legislative session calendar could be expanded and thus, legislators could more effectively address both legislation and all the supporting committee, commission and hearing work. I also believe that greater use of technology should be implemented so that some hearings include teleconference options, allowing citizens to testify from around the state. By the same token, hearing and committee meetings need to be televised and archived so those interested or directly affected can watch them from around the state. There is an expression in Finland: “When people move, ideas move.” In a huge state like New Mexico, we need the assistance of technology to move people and ideas.

Mike Anaya, Senate District 39, Democrat

Mike Anaya

Mike Anaya

A full time legislature would provide more access to the public to provide input throughout the year beyond the interim committee work. I do not believe there is anything that should be secret about government other than public safety. I would continue efforts to open up broader transparency of all activities within government. I strongly believe we have an outdated gross receipts and overall tax structure. We need to examine the overall system, close loopholes and simplify the system.

Liz Stefanics, Senate District 39, Democrat

Establish an Independent Ethics Commission with no elected officials appointed to the body but with a legal advisor/counsel. Support transparency in legislative proceedings – an improved legislative website, all hearings available live and by stored webcast, computerized records and archives.

Chris Berkheimer, House District 25, Democrat

I think the per diem should be increased slightly. This is an especially important issue for those legislators who can’t commute daily to Santa Fe. Also, allowing each member to have one person on ‘staff,’ who also receives a per diem during the Session would give legislators more time to be effective.

Scott Chandler, House District 32, Republican

The insufficiency of accountability and transparency in state government administration is among the primary impediments to meaningful progress for New Mexico. I have, for three sessions, encouraged legislators to ask questions. The Legislature seems poorly situated for substantive inquiries outside of the appropriations process. If elected, I will promote the establishment of a framework to probe the efficacy and propriety of programs and other state government efforts, to the extent appropriate.

Raymundo Lara, House District 34, Democrat

Raymundo Lara

Raymundo Lara

The capital outlay process should be looked at and opportunities for improvement should be considered. I feel that the process should have built in accountability and transparency mechanisms that will allow the taxpayers access to the information as to where the money is going and if it’s being spent in a timely manner. It is important to me that capital outlay be used to improve infrastructure in order to facilitate economic growth by providing the basic tools (utilities, roads/streets, connectivity) for business to consider locating to New Mexico and thus create well paying jobs for our constituents. In rural areas capital outlay can be utilized to create a better quality of life for the residents by building community/senior centers, parks, athletic fields and safe spaces for our children and senior citizens.

Mary Hotvedt, House District 38, Democrat

We need a reasonable and solid ethics code for legislators. Making it too ridiculously strict, as the House Republicans did in the last legislative session, is another way of postponing creating a needed reform. The bill that was passed had an unintended loophole that would decrease reporting requirements for lobbyists. It needs to be fixed.

Jeff Varela, House District 48, Democrat

Streamline and become more efficient in the number of bills, memorials, resolutions, etc. that can be introduced each legislative session. Review and streamline the number of committees and committee processes. Review and establish credibility with capital outlay process.

Greg Nibert, House District 59, Republican

The legislative branch should do its work within the time set forth in the Constitution. Interim committees should be sparingly used and for very specific issues. To have interim committees meet frequently is an affront to the citizen legislature intended by our Constitution and limits who can serve in the Legislature.

Harry Garcia, House District 69, Democrat

Terry Fletcher

Terry Fletcher

Consider lengthening the legislative time, because a 30 or 60 day session every other year is not enough time to cover all of the important issues.

Terry Fletcher, House District 69, Democrat

I think the legislature has been very effective in good legislation, especially when it comes to tax policy to promote business growth.

4. Are there any reforms to the state’s campaign/election system that you believe would improve the Legislature’s effectiveness? What changes, if any, do you support and why?

Joy Garratt, Senate District 23, Democrat

I would like to see further exploration of public financing beyond campaigns for the PRC and judicial positions. I am astounded at the amount of money being spent.

Liz Stefanics, Senate District 39, Democrat

Create a statute establishing a waiting period for legislators to act as lobbyists of one to two years (similar to the executive branch). Transition elections into public funding.

Mike Anaya, Senate District 39, Democrat

I raise money for my campaign but it is difficult for me to do so. I do not have wealthy friends or receive large donations from big companies. We should move towards public financing of campaigns so that we even the playing field and limit special interest influence over individual legislators.

Chris Berkheimer, House District 25, Democrat

The campaign/election system is fine. The most important change needed is to root out those who abuse the system.

Scott Chandler, House District 32, Republican

I support efforts to increase transparency in elections through the elimination of dark money.

Raymundo Lara, House District 34, Democrat

I would consider having the primaries be open so that all New Mexicans can participate in the election process. I have spoken to many people who do not identify with a political party, yet are involved voters who feel that their voices are not heard.

Mary Hotvedt

Mary Hotvedt

Mary Hotvedt, House District 38, Democratic

Make election day a state and national holiday, freeing up citizens to get to the polls and to work for their candidates.

Jeff Varela, House District 48, Democrat

Enforce current laws, along with a comprehensive review of campaign/election system for better efficiency and public access.

Greg Nibert, House District 59, Republican

I would not support any effort that limits free speech. I would support a change in the campaign finance reporting system to give the public and candidates more guidance as to the proper items that may be charged to the campaign account and make it easier to understand. This would include strict limitations on activities and expenditures that may be property paid by a campaign account. I say this because I see a wide range of expenditures various candidates charge to the campaign account and know of a number of expenditures that are made to advance a campaign that never get reported. When I was a county commissioner I noticed a candidate failed to report the $50 filing fee for his or her candidacy, yard signs but no line item for the expense, the fee submitted for a local recount but no line item on the report for this expense. These matters were reported, but there was no action taken. The rules must be clear and there must be consequences for willful violation of the rules.

Terry Fletcher, House District 69, Democrat

I have no problem with the present campaign system.

Harry Garcia, House District 69, Democrat

Rethink Superpacks. Superpacks need to be thought over because we do not even know where that money is coming from.

Response to all four questions from Frederick Sherman, House District 32, Democrat

As the second poorest state in the United States and representing the poorest counties in the second poorest state, this is not the time to pay legislators, it the time to prioritize needs and eliminate funds that are of lesser needs. I was elected for the school board member. We were not paid as was true for countless other volunteered people helping this community. Should we pay others. One County Commissioner here says he will also work without pay. “The health of a community is reflected by the volunteers that work to help the community.” Hundreds here volunteer to help Sr. citizens including taking them to out of town for medical needs, meal on wheels etc. The state representatives should be leaders that are willing to give back or pay it forward. They should be examples for all. There is no shortage of people running for these offices knowing they will be working for free. Working for the betterment of the state and all its people shouldn’t be tied to pay but to being a volunteer, otherwise all volunteers should be paid. The solution for more time being committed to each legislative session can be solved by extending the sessions as is necessary to get the job done. I am proud to volunteer and to help this great state.

Improving the legislative effectiveness could be helped by spending on studies by the best and brightest; allowing technology to assist in communication with all legislators as a preliminary discussion with them, there communities and transparency in the system. More stringent ethical rules are fundamental to the confidence of communities in their legislators. Those that can’t afford to give their time, can be fully involved with their legislators around the state in providing the wealth of their knowledge and ideas. Making it easier and less expensive for legislators to do their jobs is also important.

This BBSNews article was syndicated from NMPolitics.net, and written by Heath Haussamen, NMPolitics.net. Read the original article here.