The 2023 60-day legislative session begins at noon Tuesday, Jan. 17 at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com
Common Cause NM & NM Ethics Watch News:
- The study, which included comparable legislatures from around the country, characterized New Mexico’s structure as a part-time, amateur legislature.
A 55-page study called A Report on Legislative Professionalism for the State of New Mexico by UNM Professors Timothy Krebs and Michael Rocca, which has been submitted for publication in State and Local Government Review, a top scholarly journal on state and local government, calls for basic changes in the New Mexico’s legislature with the aim of increasing the efficiency and capacity of the institution.
“Scholars of state legislatures generally agree on two factors that measure the capacity to legislate: session length and support staff,” the study states. And New Mexico ranks near the bottom of those two most commonly used measures of professionalism.
According to the study, New Mexico’s Legislature meets an average of 70.53 legislative days every two years (30 days in even numbered years; 60 days in odd numbered years), the third shortest in the nation. This state spends less than $400,000 per legislator on staff every two years, which puts us 33rd out of 50 in staff spending. Our legislature employs a permanent staff of about 168 — about 1.5 per legislator — which ranks 36th out of all states.
In addition, New Mexico legislators are the nation’s only unpaid lawmakers, although they do receive per diems for expenses. Most retain their day jobs or are retired or financially able to subsidize their service. The study, which included comparable legislatures from around the country, characterized New Mexico’s structure as a part-time, amateur legislature.
Krebs and Rocca make recommendations in three areas to make New Mexico’s legislature a more professional institution.
- Increase the number of permanent legislative staff, especially staff connected to individual legislators. Most New Mexico legislators do not have dedicated staff, only having access to staff during the legislative session or during interim committee meetings. “Additional staff support is the best way to increase legislative capacity,” the study says. Increasing professional staff and broadening their distribution in the legislature would mean greater ability for the Legislature to check executive agencies and interest groups and lobbyists, and to oversee governmental programs. It also would help individual lawmakers in building expertise on policy, as well as providing vital constituency service.
- Work to provide a salary to legislators. This, the study says, is necessary mainly because it’s the fair thing to do. Legislative salary as an indicator of professionalism is linked to a number of important factors, such as who runs for office, time legislators spend on the job and legislative productivity. This likely would lead to good government reforms, economic development and other benefits for the public.
- Days in the session should be increased. This would allow the legislature to become more involved in making policy, in shaping the budget, and running the government itself. As a result, the legislature will become a constant presence that could not be ignored by the governor or anyone else.
“Research shows that more professionalized legislatures have greater to capacity to act in the policy and representational interests of state residents,” Krebs said. “Adding legislative staff, paying legislators and increasing time in session will help to modernize New Mexico state government in ways that would benefit both the legislature and its constituents.”
Providing legislator salaries and increasing the days in the session, as well as providing for the introduction of all substantive legislation during each session, would have to come in the form of amending the state constitution. This would have to be approved by the Legislature and state voters.
However, providing staff to each legislator could be accomplished through legislation—as soon as this coming session.
A growing number of citizens and advocacy groups here — including New Mexico Ethics Watch, Common Cause New Mexico, the Rio Grande Sierra Club, 350.org, the League of Women Voters, Indivisible and Retake Democracy — are calling for “modernizing” or “professionalizing” the Legislature in 2023.
“Providing staff and salary, lengthening the session—It’s the right thing to do. It’s the fair thing to do — not to reward the legislators, but to provide constituent services, enable more representation and the ability to check interest groups and the governor,” Rocca said.
Rocca said that more staff will lead to more innovation, less copy-and-paste legislation from other states, and fewer errors.
This Report on Legislative Professionalism for the State of New Mexico was funded by the Thornburg Foundation and completed in November 2022. Read the full report here.