Big salaries=big shortfalls

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — Are New Mexicans getting their money’s worth out of our 112 state legislators? A recent report indicates we may be getting a very good deal indeed.

The Illinois Policy Institute looked into the range of salaries paid to state legislators across the country and found that the states that pay their lawmakers the most also have the highest budget shortfalls.

The average budget shortfall for the states with the top 10 salaries is over 30 percent. The average for the bottom 10 states is under 19 percent.

Data used for this study is for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010. I reported to you recently on data ending June 30, 2009. California ended its 2009 fiscal year with a 49 percent budget gap. This year, it was 65 percent. New Mexico’s figures were a 6.3 percent gap last year and 22 percent this year.

California pays the highest legislative salaries in the nation at $95,291. Other states in the top 10 are Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, Alaska, Wisconsin and New Jersey, which pays a salary of $49,000.

The bottom 10 in legislative compensation are New Mexico, Utah and Texas with no salary. They are followed by Mississippi, South Carolina, Nebraska, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Arkansas and Louisiana, with a salary of $16,800.

New Mexico, Utah and Texas all pay mileage and per diem to their lawmakers but so do many states that pay salaries.

Other factors also enter into the correlation of legislative pay with budget deficits. The states that pay the highest salaries also have the longest legislative sessions, many lasting for most of the year.

How much more work and higher quality work does this produce?

Maybe not much because there is no incentive to finish their work until the final days when they hold lengthy sessions on nights and weekends just as New Mexico does.

New Mexico’s 90 days of regular sessions over a two-year period make almost every minute count. Our lawmakers find it necessary sometimes to hold special sessions but so do the legislatures that meet for longer.

If a legislature is going to meet almost year round, it becomes necessary to pay a salary since its lawmakers can’t hold a regular job. That has become a problem in at least one state (New York) with one of the biggest budget shortfalls in the nation. It has suspended its own pay since April, forcing many members to borrow money in order to survive.

One other factor relating to the correlation of pay and budget deficits is that the 10 states with the highest legislative pay also are some of the wealthiest  in the nation in terms of household income. Evidently the wealth of a state has an effect on how far it can fall during a recession.

New Mexico’s good sized budget shortfall has caused both gubernatorial candidates to stop banging on each other and come up with some plans to plug our budget hole.

Both have promised to reduce the number of political appointees  That is the most popular budget cutting device currently mentioned. Reportedly, cutting back to the level of exempt employees at the end of the Gary Johnson administration is most often mentioned. That is said to save about $8.8 million a year.

Another popular cut is the sale of the state jet, purchased in 2005 for $5.5 million.

Martinez is for it. Denish says this is a bad time to sell because so many similar jets currently are on the market.

Here’s an idea. We could sell the jet and maybe the turbo props too and charter flights when absolutely necessary.

Former GOP gubernatorial candidate Allen Weh has a very successful worldwide charter service I’m sure they could use.

But then, Weh aired a campaign ad during the primary indicating he would use his pick up to get around the state.