UNM investigates unpaid labor by lawmakers

The New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — More than 90% of state legislators who participated in a University of New Mexico survey said they do at least 30 days of unpaid legislative work a year.

The outcome comes as a group of lawmakers prepare to push ahead with a state legislature overhaul in the 2023 session.

They are developing legislation that would set a state salary for legislators, increase the length of legislatures, and increase the legislature’s staff. Some of the ideas would be included in a constitutional amendment put to voters.

New Mexico is the only state that does not pay a salary to its lawmakers. Instead, the members receive daily allowances – based on the Bundestagegeld – for attending meetings, reimbursement of travel expenses and the opportunity to participate in a pension scheme.

But Rose Rohrer, a research fellow at UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said about nine out of 10 lawmakers who took part in a survey said they work at least 30 days a year without asking for a daily rate.

Another 9% of respondents said they worked 10 to 29 unpaid days.

“I think that’s a critical finding,” Rohrer said Monday during a presentation before the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee at the Roundhouse. “Everyone said they were doing unpaid work.”

Lawmakers, she said, also reported that serving in the Legislature takes a toll on their employment outside of the Capitol.

“People said losses of $10,000 to $20,000 a year to serve as lawmakers,” she said.

Rohrer is working on a more comprehensive report that will be submitted to the Legislature in January. Her research team reached out to all 112 state legislatures, although not all participated.

Preliminary polling results, she said, point to support for expanding the legislative staff to help lawmakers do their jobs and allay voter concerns. There is also support, said Rohrer, to extend or restructure the legislative periods.

One idea involved adding days to the session, but with a break that split the session in two.

Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, said the provision of a salary, staffing and other changes would allow a broader pool of people to serve in the legislature, creating a body that more accurately reflects New Mexico’s demographics.

She is among a group of Democratic lawmakers working on legislation expected to be introduced in the 60-day session beginning Jan. 17.

In New Mexico, 30-day and 60-day regular sessions alternate each year. But lawmakers also meet in committee hearings throughout the year to hear reports and prepare legislation before formal sessions.

They also attend special meetings called by the governor for a specific purpose.