Voters are sending more women into the New Mexico legislature. Will structural changes follow?

In this file photo: Democratic lawmakers (from left) Joanne Ferrary of Las Cruces; Andrea Romero of Santa Fe; and Patricia Roybal Caballero of Albuquerque walk through the Roundhouse. The number of women in the legislature has increased by 29% since 2018. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — For about a year, a small group of House Democrats — all women — have met informally to discuss legislative restructuring.

Their ideas fall largely within what proponents are calling the “modernization” of the state’s citizen legislature — where members are unpaid, understaffed, and cram much of their work into 30- or 60-day meetings each year.

Proposals to overhaul the system — offered by Democrats and Republicans alike — have consistently fallen short over the years, despite support in recent years from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

But the group in the House says the time is right to build support for changes they say would result in a more effective, more responsive New Mexico legislature.

For one, the legislature now includes more women and younger adults — many of whom have school-age children and full-time jobs.

“It changed the complexion of the legislature and made it more urgent,” Assemblyman Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, said in an interview on Friday.

Understanding the new faces in the Roundhouse, Garratt said the importance of building a different kind of legislature – one in which members receive a fixed salary and have staff to help them with constituent services and analysis of legislation.

At least 49 members of the House and Senate will be women next year – an increase of 29% over four years. Women make up the majority of the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the Democratic faction in that chamber.

Ideas for transforming the legislative system are wide-ranging at this point, but supporters say they are eager to consider any bills that gain prominence in next year’s session.

“Personally, I’m keeping an open mind,” said Senator Katy Duhigg of D-Albuquerque.

Previous proposals have suggested naming the state ethics committee to set a fair salary for lawmakers, or extending the 30-day sessions now held in even-numbered years to 45 days, with no restrictions on what can be instituted.

The shorter sessions are now mostly devoted to financial matters and whatever the governor has put on the agenda.

However, before the 2023 meeting, concrete proposals are still being drafted, generally focusing on salaries, staffing and meeting lengths.

Changing the length of sessions or setting a salary would also require voter approval to change the constitution.

campaign for change

External interest groups are also preparing a push to modernize the legislature.

Common Cause New Mexico, a non-profit group, will this week release a Research & Polling Inc. poll of likely voters showing public support for paying lawmakers so long as they don’t set their own salaries; granting a budget for hiring staff; and extending the length of legislative periods.

“People close to the New Mexico legislature have long known that our short sessions, unpaid legislatures and staffing structure are not keeping up with the complex problems facing the state,” said Mario Jimenez, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, in a letter statement. “But this poll shows the public knows, too.”

The poll included a random sample of 816 voters who said they were likely to vote in the 2022 general election. It was conducted from September 16 to October 13 and has an error rate of 3.4 percentage points.

The results showed that 52% of voters were in favor of the state ethics committee setting a salary and 62% in favor of an independent salary committee.

Thus the question was asked, “If the New Mexico legislature were to be paid a salary, there are various groups that could set the salary level. Would you support or oppose each of the following to set the salary level?”

Legal Revision

The debate over reshaping the legislature intensified this spring when 12 of the 70 members of the House of Representatives – including Speaker Brian Egolf – opted not to seek re-election. Some cited the strain on their families and work commitments.

New Mexico has the nation’s only unpaid legislature.

Instead, when lawmakers attend sessions, they draw daily payments for legislative work based on federal daily rates. For example, for the 30-day session that occurred earlier this year, they totaled about $5,200.

Legislators also get mileage reimbursement and there is an optional retirement plan.

Proponents of setting a salary say it would expand the pool of people who can serve.

Under the current system, Garratt said, it’s easy to have “one legislature for pensioners rather than a more diverse legislature.”

Garratt herself has recently retired, despite balancing her job as a teacher with legislation in past sessions.

Any suggestion to set a salary is likely to be met with resistance. Many Republican lawmakers and candidates opposed the idea when polled by the Journal on the issue during this year’s election cycle.

GOP lawmakers say they know what they’re signing up for and that a state salary is unlikely to improve the system.

Rep. Elect Alan Martinez — a Republican who won a newly drawn vacancy in Sandoval County — said the compensation now in effect hasn’t stopped him from running.

He is a former Assistant Secretary of the Cabinet and retired who worked in the Department of Veteran Services for 25 years, which exposed him to the workings of state government.

“The pay never crossed my mind,” Martinez said of his decision to run. “I’m not doing this for a job. I am committed to serving and that is important to me.”

Ideas for overhauling the legislature go beyond just pay.

Duhigg, an attorney and single parent, said lawmakers would benefit from a robust team of experts who can help research the legislation.

Lawmakers now receive written analysis from professional staffers working for the Legislative Finance Committee and Legislative Education Study Committee, but much of the information given to lawmakers in the heat of the session comes from paid lobbyists.

“Access to unbiased expertise is critical,” said Duhigg.

Constituent services are also an area of ​​need, supporters said.

Rep. Kristina Ortez, a Taos Democrat who works for a land trust, said it’s difficult to balance a full-time job with calls from constituents who need critical, time-sensitive help.

People are shocked, she said, to learn that the legislature has no salary and no individual staff to help them between sessions.

“In my opinion,” Ortez said, “modernizing the legislature will only benefit our constituents.”

The 60-day legislative period begins in January, when more concrete proposals for sweeping changes are expected.