COMMENTARY: In years that oil and gas revenues are high, New Mexico’s state legislators split the profits to buy playground equipment and pave roads like kids diving for candy falling from a busted piñata.
Our capital outlay system, which has become a source of ridicule, illustrates what’s wrong with how our state Legislature is structured — and how it functions.
We’re one of the poorest states in America, and we act like we believe we’ll always be poor. In good years, our system encourages lawmakers to grab what they can.
Some act like the money belongs to them, not the public, and use it to win votes to stay in office.
We do that instead of pooling resources to fund more significant projects that have the potential to improve our state’s economy and help people out of poverty.
But why would we expect anything different from the only state legislators in America who aren’t paid a salary? Some talk with pride about our “citizen legislature,” but the reality is that our system was designed for an early 20th Century style of governing that doesn’t work 100 years later.
By not paying lawmakers, we limit who can afford to serve and exclude important viewpoints. And the job has grown well beyond 30-day sessions one year and 60 days the next. We’re pushing those who are serious about the work to exhaustion.
They often make decisions without adequate information or capacity to think critically. They too often lean on what their team is doing, which increases partisanship and the influence of lobbyists and special interests.
Lawmakers look for other ways to make ends meet. They learn to travel cheaply so they have leftover per diem money after hotels and meals – which isn’t what that money is intended for. They give themselves spectacular retirement plans if they stay in office long enough. Some use campaign money in ethically questionable ways. Most take food and ski passes and toothbrushes from people who want something in exchange that’s much more valuable.
This isn’t an attack on lawmakers. Many are wonderful. It’s a critique of a broken system that hampers our state’s ability to think systemically and long-term about improving New Mexico.
Our Legislature’s structure hampers bipartisan, ethical, detail-oriented and bold decision-making that can improve our state.
This isn’t the way to raise New Mexicans out of poverty.
We need to increase our investment of public money in the deliberative branch of state government – the folks whose job is to have vision and be generative. Unless they’re equipped to do that job, they often spend their time responding to crisis after crisis and spending money when it’s available.
Paying lawmakers wouldn’t cost much – a few million dollars per year in a budget of several billion. We can find the money.
The biggest hindrance is voting New Mexicans. Several times in our state’s history we’ve voted down proposals to amend the state Constitution to pay our legislators. It can’t happen without our support.
We need to recognize that our legislative system is not keeping up with the speed of life in the 21st Century. We need to make structural change that will empower our Legislature to make important changes like reforming our capital outlay system.
The alternative is settling long-term into high poverty and negative population growth while our children leave for better futures in the states around us.
Let’s give or kids a better future right here in New Mexico.