By MILAN SIMONICH
The Santa Fe New Mexican
State Sen. Craig Brandt believes in his avocation, but that doesn’t stop him from knocking it.
“I have a concern about professionalizing the Legislature. I think we cause enough damage being here for 30 or 60 days,” said Brandt, R-Rio Rancho.
Credit him for candor and colorful quotes. But Brandt’s solution to combating sloth, ineptitude and staleness at the Capitol is to impose term limits on lawmakers. New faces might bring better ideas and more enthusiasm, says Brandt, a senator since 2013.
This led him to introduce Senate Joint Resolution 4, a long-shot proposal to make sweeping changes in the legislative branch.
For starters, Brandt wants to do away with two-year terms for members of the House of Representatives. Under his proposal, House members would get four-year terms. But they could serve no more than three consecutive terms, or 12 years.
Brandt’s proposal would extend Senate terms from four years to six years. Senators also would be restricted to three consecutive terms, or 18 years in office.
Brandt said the inconsistency of senators being permitted to serve longer than representatives was done for simplicity. Voters would know all lawmakers get no more than three consecutive terms.
The fact that senators could remain in office far longer than representatives seems to conflict with Brandt’s desire to have fresh voices in positions of power. But why nitpick over a six-year difference? In a world of sound bites, term limits might sound like a way to oust mediocre incumbents without voters’ participation.
Brandt’s proposal isn’t going anywhere for two reasons. First, many legislators see themselves as powerhouses who should not be replaced under any circumstances, especially the turn of a calendar.
Second, and more important to the public, there is no reason to believe term limits would improve state government. The restriction might actually create a less informed, more chaotic Legislature.
New Mexico is the only state that doesn’t pay its legislators a base salary. It’s been that way during all 111 years of statehood. The result is lobbyists and paid state employees often are more knowledgeable than elected representatives.
If Brandt’s term limits were added to the mix, an even less savvy Legislature would be sworn in. It would be at the mercy of staff members and well-versed lobbyists.
A retiree, Brandt skips social hours at nightspots in which many legislators gab, eat and drink with lobbyists. Brandt instead drives home to study legislation. He reads every bill that comes before his committees or reaches the full 42-member Senate.
He would work just as hard whether he was facing a term limit or continuing in the system that allows him to serve as long as he gets the most votes on election day.
Equally clear is term limits wouldn’t improve the performance of legislators who glance at 75-page bills or walk out of the chamber for fear of offending someone on a difficult vote.
There’s not even a guarantee that term limits would weed out bad, three-term lawmakers. Nothing in Brandt’s proposal would prohibit someone who reaches a term limit from running for a seat in the other legislative chamber.
New Mexico’s problem is not how long lawmakers stay in office. It’s that most people can’t run for the Legislature. They need to make a living.
That leaves New Mexico’s unpaid Legislature top-heavy with retirees, public employees and lawyers who can schedule their practices around obligations at the Capitol.
The only way to expand the talent pool is to pay legislators a reasonable base salary. Five Democratic lawmakers have introduced House Joint Resolution 8 to put that question before the voters.
“What’s important is diversifying our Legislature,” said Rep. Angelica Rubio of Las Cruces, one the sponsors. “Paying a salary is big part of bringing that representation to the public.”
Another of the sponsors, Rep. Joy Garratt of Albuquerque, recently retired from her job as a middle school social studies teacher. She spent many nights grading papers and taking calls from constituents about one issue or another. Good legislators handle a heavy workload year-round, sometimes juggling a job on top of their responsibilities in government.
“If we can devote the proper amount of time to legislative work, we will be better,” Garratt said.
As written, the proposed constitutional amendment will be tough to sell. It says legislative salaries would be no less than the statewide median household income for New Mexico, according to the most recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau.
That would be about $54,000 annually, too high for voters to accept after paying nothing for more than a century.
In fact, voters six times since the 1940s have defeated proposals to pay state lawmakers. Skinflints like the system as is. So do those who romanticize about the wonders of a citizen legislature.
The Legislature is nothing to celebrate today. It probably wasn’t so hot in 1912, either.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505.986.3080.