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Efforts to reform unpaid legislature down to the wire in last days of session

Former state lawmaker Kay Bounkeua takes a break from her work as her daughter Ryla Bounkeua plays with Kay's stepdad Jeffrey Strong in Rio Rancho, N.M, March 13.
Alice Fordham
Former state lawmaker Kay Bounkeua takes a break from her work as her daughter Ryla Bounkeua plays with Kay's stepdad Jeffrey Strong in Rio Rancho, N.M, March 13.

Lawmakers in New York State make more than $140,000 a year. Their counterparts in New Hampshire bring in just $100. In New Mexico, legislators receive a per diem, mileage and retirement benefits, but they are the only lawmakers in the country who don't get a penny for the actual work they do.

"I found myself in this place where I'm still working full time at my regular job, I've got a 3-year-old kid at home," said Kay Bounkeua about the challenges of the unpaid work. Bounkeua was selected in 2021 to fill a vacancy in the state House of Representatives after a Democrat stepped down during a corruption investigation.

Bounkeua was the first Asian-American woman in New Mexico's legislature. Her parents fled Laos as refugees decades ago.

"You go into these spaces, you have the idealism, you have the hope for change," she said, "I just wanted the possibilities of what we could bring as a community, but also what our children could see themselves doing moving into the future."

The legislature in New Mexico meets for 30 days and 60 days on alternating years, and many legislators attend committees during the rest of the year, as well as communicate regularly with constituents.

For Bounkeua, who works for The Wilderness Society full time, doing what she saw as two jobs – and raising a child – was impossible.

"How can you ask anybody to do that?" she said. In the end, she decided not to run in the election at the end of her term.

The attempt to get lawmakers paid

The lack of payment, as well as the absence of support like paid staff and office space for representatives, is a deterrent to working- and middle-class people who might consider public service, said Democratic state Rep. Angelica Rubio.

"We have such a hard time getting people to run because there's just no salary," she said.

Now, during the current 60-day legislative session, Rubio is sponsoring a proposal to ask voters to change the state constitution to allow legislators to be paid, and to set up a commission to figure out how much.

A separate resolution proposed extending the length of the annual sessions, though is unlikely to advance, and a study is planned on the feasibility of having paid staff.

"It's about making sure that there are more people and more experiences at the table to make policy that is more meaningful to the communities that we're serving," Rubio said.

Sondra Roeuny, the executive director of Emerge New Mexico, which recruits female and nonbinary Democratic political candidates, said potential leaders ask many concerned questions about the unpaid nature of legislative work.

"How am I going to do this, if I'm the primary breadwinner, or if I need to support my family?" she said. "If we have a paid legislature, we're actually investing in New Mexicans in our state by making sure that folks that can represent the great people of New Mexico and our communities can do so without a deep personal sacrifice to them."

Voters could well agree to pay legislators. Common Cause New Mexico, which advocates for a paid legislature, conducted a poll that showed most people support the idea.

Legislative salaries have broad support from the Democratic Party, which controls New Mexico's House, Senate and governor's office.

Most Republican lawmakers, though, oppose the suggestion, with some saying that service should be voluntary.

Republican House Minority Leader Ryan Lane said that if a salary is meant to allow legislators to give up other work, it should be the equivalent of a professional's salary, an expense that would be difficult to justify.

"I think the issue that I have with the current proposal is it seeks to create a committee that has the sole authority to determine legislative salaries," Lane added, objecting to the proposed committee's unelected nature.

What the research says

Some experts, like Nicholas Carnes, a professor of public policy at Duke University, say paying lawmakers for their time doesn't necessarily diversify the legislature economically.

"We found that actually states with higher salaries didn't have any more people from working-class occupations running or getting into office," he said of a paper he co-wrote.

Carnes says other financial barriers like the cost of campaigning were harder for working-class people to overcome, and that some of the most important work to improve access to public office is being done by groups who help candidates with those costs.

He added that paying state lawmakers improves governance. "When you pay legislators more, they behave more like it's a full-time job," he said. "So they do more of the things we might want them to do. They miss fewer votes, they devote more time and attention to learning what their constituents want."

Michael Rocca, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, agreed that paid lawmakers are a key part of improving state governance.

"Those who are paid, have greater staff, have longer sessions are able to deliver more innovative policy ... that is a better match to constituency preferences," he said.

He said in New Mexico, with deep problems of education, inequality and crime, such innovation is urgently needed.

The proposal to pay lawmakers has passed New Mexico's House and is still making its way through Senate committees. After a discussion Wednesday morning in the Senate Finance Committee, no vote was taken on whether to pass the resolution or not. But this legislative session wraps at the weekend and this innovation might not make it into law this year.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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  • Let’s Talk New Mexico 1/19 8am: Beyond the limits of the tight legislative calendar, lawmakers are faced with the challenge of understanding dozens of bills each session without having full-time staffers to help them. They often rely on industry insiders, lobbyists or activists for information on how proposed legislation will work. Furthermore, legislators do their work without a salary, earning only what they get for a per diem which is much too low to cover their stay in Santa Fe.