UNM study aims to modernize state Legislature, improve lawmaker pay

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SANTA FE, N.M. – State lawmakers will return to Santa Fe in January to submit, debate, and vote on new laws for New Mexico – and that could include conversations about giving themselves a proper salary.

Right now, state lawmakers only earn a per diem for certain events and are reimbursed for travel. But, a new UNM study suggests many lawmakers believe it’s time to start collecting a paycheck.

The study’s end goal is to modernize the state’s Legislature. New Mexico is currently the only state that doesn’t pay its lawmakers a salary, and data collected by UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research suggests many legislators believe it’s time for that era to end.

“There’s a lot of interest in how internally, folks are feeling about the way the Legislature works,” said Rose Rohrer, research scientist at the UNM Bureau of Business & Economic Research. 

Rohrer has spent a lot of time talking to state lawmakers about what’s going on inside the Roundhouse.

“There were three of us at BBER who were making the phone calls, to reach out to legislators across the aisle, around the state with different demographic backgrounds to ensure that we heard as many diverse voices as possible,” said Rohrer. 

She found a lot of those lawmakers are working off the clock.

Survey results show 90% of legislators are working at least 30 days a year without claiming per diem. And when they are on the clock, only 22% said the current reimbursements are enough to cover their expenses.

“It gets really complicated and very difficult for lawmakers, I think, to make ends meet with the per diem if we’re not being thoughtful about this,” Rohrer said. 

That may be why nearly 83% of participants believe lawmakers should receive a salary, but Rohrer says those numbers only tell part of the story.

“There were a few people who said ‘no, absolutely not,’” he said “There were also a few who said no, but — and the same thing on the other side 

Ryan Salazar is in that gray zone. 

“I think the fact that lawmakers don’t have salaries or don’t earn salaries, makes it very difficult for people who are middle income or even low income to eat or to run for office,” said Salazar. 

Salazar ran for New Mexico’s 46th House District during the primaries earlier this year. He says taking on a high stakes job without a salary was on his mind, and believes that pushes a lot of folks away from running for office.

“If we do provide an income for state lawmakers, it would allow more representation for blue collar workers at the state level,” said Salazar. 

And he says that salary should keep lawmakers on the same level as the people they serve.

“They should match the median wages that your typical state worker state employee makes, and I think that’s the best solution,” Salazar said. 

Rohrer says a full version of the study should be ready in early January, just before the legislative session begins.

We reached out to several state lawmakers Tuesday to discuss some of these findings, no one got back to us.