House of Representatives approves bill to fund field offices, increase Legislature staffing

Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, speaks with Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, indoors on Wednesday. The House of Representatives voted 47 to 19 to pass a bill that would provide funding to investigate the idea of ​​field offices and full-time staff for the New Mexico legislature. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — New Mexico lawmakers on Wednesday took a possible first step to modernize the legislature, unveiling a bill to pay session expenses that includes money to explore the idea of ​​field offices and full-time staff for all 112 lawmakers.

The proposed $2.5 million funding sparked a protracted debate in the House of Representatives, with some Republicans unsuccessfully attempting to remove it from a “Feed Bill” allocating $57 million in total to the normally submitted on the opening day of the session.

“This proposal is not ready for prime time,” said R-Farmington Rep. Rod Montoya, who argued that the funding should instead be included in a budget bill for the coming year.

But supporters said the proposal had been duly scrutinized and drafted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

“I think what we’re looking for is if there’s a way for all state legislators to make their jobs more professional and responsive,” said House Majority Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque.

She said a contract to conduct the study could be issued after the funding bill was signed.

The idea was also supported by Rio Rancho House Republican leader Jason Harper, who said allowing each lawmaker to have a full-time staffer could help with research and inaugural sessions.

The bill, House Bill 1, eventually passed by a vote of 47 to 19 — or just enough to meet a two-thirds approval requirement for bills set to go into effect immediately after the governor signs it. Now it goes to the Senate.

New Mexico is currently the only state in the nation where lawmakers do not receive a salary, although they do receive a daily payment – currently set at $178 per day – intended to cover food and lodging costs. You can also qualify for statutory pension insurance.

Additionally, New Mexico is one of only two states — Nevada being the other — that doesn’t have a full-time legislature for all lawmakers, Chasey said.

Currently, only senior lawmakers — such as the Speaker of the House and leaders of both houses — have full-time staff, while many low-level lawmakers rely on peers and lobbyists for technical information on bills.

Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, one of the architects of the proposal to study full-time staff and field offices, described her northern New Mexico district as about the size of Massachusetts and said she was sometimes unable to to answer all constitutive questions.

Meanwhile, the proposal to study field offices and full-time staff is one of several legislative modernization measures lawmakers are expected to discuss during the 60-day session that began Tuesday.

Other proposals would allow an outside pay commission to set pay levels for lawmakers and extend the length of legislative periods.

An already-tabled proposal, House Resolution 2, which would require the approval of voters nationwide in the next general election, would set the length of legislative sessions at 60 days per year.

Legislative periods are currently constitutionally limited to 30 days in even years and 60 days in odd years.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said in a recent interview that it is time for the legislature to adopt changes, saying the demands on civil lawmakers are unreasonable.

“There will be a big boost in getting every legislature an office and an employee,” Wirth said.