Our unpaid legislators can’t keep up with the governor or the pace of life in the 21st Century no matter how hard they work
The raging battle in Santa Fe about whether lawmakers are working hard enough points to a deeper issue.
Our unpaid legislators can’t keep pace with the governor no matter how hard they work. The executive branch has the upper hand every time it engages the legislative branch.
Lawmakers also can’t keep up with quickly changing times. Put simply, our legislative branch isn’t designed or equipped to respond to the pace of life in the 21st Century.
It’s time to pay our legislators.
During the current session, Gov. Susana Martinez and House Republicans are constantly accusing Democrats of stalling their agenda and not working. Many Democrats say they’re working hard, and there’s plenty of evidence that at least some are doing just that.
Democratic leaders insist they have to focus on the task at hand, redistricting, rather than other items Martinez put on the call for the special session. She obviously wants them to work on her other agenda items too.
The fight is consuming the session, with daily news releases coming from Republicans accusing Democrats of not working and from Democrats highlighting what they’re doing.
Martinez is going to win the political battle. Many people already think their politicians aren’t working for them. But political fighting aside, the reality isn’t black and white: Some lawmakers are working their tails off while others are spending their days relaxing.
Our unpaid legislators do earn per diem, but most use much of it up on hotels, food and gas. Meanwhile, with the exception of those who live in and around Santa Fe, they have to travel far from home and put aside their families and their jobs – their sources of income – to do the work of their constituents.
You could argue that they knew that when they ran for office, and legislators should be willing to work hard when they get to Santa Fe regardless of whether they’re being paid. On the other hand, some will argue that a part-time, unpaid legislature should be expected to do, at most, part-time, unpaid work.
In other words, you get what you pay for.
Legislative and executive branches aren’t equal
Martinez and former Gov. Bill Richardson have quite dominant personalities and are masters of political skill. Both repeatedly backed the Legislature into corners, like Martinez is doing now. She wins either way: Lawmakers pass her agenda, or the public thinks they’re lazy.
What else should we expect from a system in which the legislative and executive branches of government aren’t equal? A full-time governor who is paid a good salary and gets other perks including a mansion leads the executive branch. She has an army of full-time staffers working for her.
The lack of pay, meanwhile, dramatically limits who can serve in the Legislature, affecting the quality of the legislative branch and limiting the accountability that is inherent in a threat of losing the next election. Generally, those who can afford to serve now include people who are wealthy, successfully self-employed, retired or top government employees. Many run unopposed every election cycle or don’t have serious challenges.
If we paid lawmakers a part-time salary, say $25,000 a year, we’d dramatically increase the potential pool of candidates. And, because they would be making some money, lawmakers would have a greater responsibility and ability to focus on the job.
It would also take away any excuses based on a sense of entitlement. I can’t tell you how frustrated I got every time I heard then-Sen. Shannon Robinson argue against ethics reform during the 2007 session. He essentially said that, because lawmakers weren’t paid, it was unfair to take away things such as meals paid for by lobbyists.
It’s reasonable to suspect, then, that if you pay legislators, and take away that argument against ethics reform, you could create a legislative branch with a stronger commitment to ethical behavior, in addition to one that’s committed to working harder.
Today’s pace means working more
Legislative leaders know they’re at a disadvantage against the governor. That’s one reason they dug their heels in when Richardson pushed them, and it’s one reason they’re doing it now. During the Richardson years, fights between the governor and the Senate weren’t about policy. They were about personalities.
Such fighting has nothing to do with what’s best for New Mexicans.
Our lawmakers need the foresight to realize that one of the most important things they can do is try to level the playing field by seeking a constitutional amendment that allows them to be paid. Some might lose re-election because of it, but in the end the legislative branch would be stronger. That would be good for New Mexico.
It would also be good for Martinez’s agenda. She wants lawmakers to work harder. If they were paid, legislators would have no excuse to do anything less. Martinez should support a constitutional amendment to pay legislators.
Our Legislature is designed to meet to address policy issues once every two years. Such infrequent meetings might have worked at some point in New Mexico’s history, during a slower time. But life moves quickly today, and government must be able to adapt.
That means working more, which we’re already demanding from our lawmakers. Special sessions have become the norm. The job has outgrown what can be done by unpaid lawmakers.
We need to pay these folks.
This shouldn’t be a political battle. We should have a Legislature that’s able to consider serious policy issues as they need addressed – not just once every two years.