The complications of paying the Legislature

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By Merilee Dannemann

The notion that New Mexico should pay legislators a salary has been discussed many times. In 2016, a constitutional amendment was proposed to establish a salary, but wasn’t passed.

Some observers think we’d get a better quality legislature. Maybe. But it’s not so simple.

A salary would make it easier for intelligent, principled, civic minded individuals representing a broader range of backgrounds to seek elective office. It also could make legislative service attractive to some people who would want the job primarily for the money. Alas, New Mexico does have history of that. (Recall a past state auditor or two, for example.)

New Mexico is the last state to have no salary for legislators. Our legislators receive per diem expenses tagged to the IRS rate for Santa Fe, currently $183 a day for the legislative session and interim committee meetings. Most legislators actually do have to stay in hotels and pay for lodging and expenses. (I’ll mention exceptions another time.)

The 2016 amendment would have set legislators’ salaries to the state’s median household income, currently around $45,000. For 112 legislators, that totals a little more than $5 million a year. But the cost of a salary is never just the salary.

In case another such proposal is introduced in 2019, let’s examine.

First, additional costs: Salary is taxable for both federal and state income tax. So the take-home salary would be less than that hypothetical $45,000 – just as for any other salaried employee.

Legally, a salaried person is an employee of somebody. Currently New Mexico legislators are not employees. If they become employees, who’s the boss? If a legislator fails to show up at all the required times, would salary be docked?

Would legislators be entitled to sick leave and the state employee health plan?

If they receive a salary, then, unless special law is made to provide otherwise, they have the same rights as any employees. That includes unemployment coverage, which requires a payroll deduction with a match from the employer.

When would unemployment apply? If a legislator loses the next election, is he or she entitled to unemployment?

Salaried employees are covered by workers’ compensation if injured on the job. When is a legislator on duty? A legislator might slip and fall in the supermarket while talking to a fellow shopper who is a constituent. The legislator could, hypothetically, claim workers’ comp. And whether any legislator ever claims it, the insurance premium would still have to be paid by the employer (that’s us).

Second, different expectations of service: Should legislative sessions be longer? Should legislative service become a full-time, year-round job? If so, what should legislators be doing all year? Poking around into all the state agencies?

Educating themselves by going to more conferences?

Would you expect legislators to be available to constituents year-round? Informally, they already are. If they are paid to be available, would they need offices in their districts, another taxpayer expense (perhaps with staff)? If they have an existing job or profession, should they give it up?

Would the salary replace the per diem that legislators are now paid? In our sprawling state, that would hurt legislators who have to travel long distances.

The other 49 states have, presumably, dealt with these issues, possibly in 49 different ways. So it’s not impossible, just cumbersome. But before New Mexico discusses this further, we ought to figure out what we expect or we could have a decade of litigation.

Our citizens already spend dizzyingly high amounts on campaign contributions for a part-time job that pays no salary.

Legislative campaigns used to involve a few brochures and a lot of shoe leather, but no more. If the legislative salary encourages more candidates to jump into the ring, campaigns will become even more expensive. And you as a citizen will have to do more homework to pick the best candidate.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through triplespacedagain.com.