The legislative life: Part-time, unpaid, fixed-length sessions? Not quite.

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By Harold Morgan

 Legislators go to meetings. That’s what they do.

Legislators also get a lot of mail, both paper delivered by the postal service and email. Some of the mail, maybe much of it, is read. The proportion of read mail might be a measure of legislator diligence or engagement. 

Our legislators are described as unpaid, part-time, citizen legislators who meet in fixed-length sessions or 30 and 60 days in alternate years. 

None of this is quite true. 

Though legislators get no salary, there is a $164 per diem to allegedly cover expenses during the session in Santa Fe or for other legislative business, such as interim committee meetings. The amount is laughable. Few decent hotel rooms in Santa Fe cost less than $164.

While being a legislator is less than full time, the job requires substantial time. Meetings and mail continue throughout the year. Committees meet during the time between sessions, typically for two or three days. During summer, interim committee meetings move around. 

Meeting in different places expands legislator perspective. Touring an oil well servicing firm outside Artesia on a 10- degree summer afternoon is enlightening, as is cruising lovely downtown Artesia and the buildings at the base of Taos Ski Valley.

As a practical matter, people—citizens—with real jobs are excluded from serving in the Legislature. “Real job” means the sort of job most people hold—working for a company and being paid a salary. Companies lack the flexibility to have key staffers disappear for big pieces of time. 

Regular session length is fixed. But we’ve had ten special sessions the last 15 years, so the fixed length doesn’t seem to matter. For all the claims of bipartisanship, someone isn’t properly managing the regular sessions.

Legislators are around power and money. This can be tempting. The most recent case is former Sen. Phil Griego, convicted last year of five crimes. In 2015 former long time state senator and Secretary of State Diana Duran pled guilty to embezzlement charges deriving from gambling losses.

Legislative life during the session is far from the bacchanal sometimes claimed.  Still it is high theater of a sort.  Everyone has a session event, from the most obscure county association to the large statewide groups. Some have dinners. The receptions and dinners, commonly paid for by groups through their lobbyists, amount to more meetings. Building relationships is the purpose. A few purists insist on paying their own way to the events as if group financing of a dinner will corrupt.

Campaigning is forgotten when the Legislature is described as part time. For a year (or more for a first timer) the candidate goes everywhere to meet people. During late summer and fall (and spring, if there is a primary), several hours each day are devoted to “walking the district,” going door-to-door to talk to voters and recruit support. This is work. Committed incumbents walk the district even if there is no opposition, something my representative doesn’t bother with. 

Some favor salaried legislators. Ballotpedia.org says that, as of June 28, 2017, California paid its full-time legislators  $104,118 annually plus $183 for each day in session. New Hampshire’s “pay” is a symbolic $200 per two-year term with no per diem.

Small population states, especially western states, tend to have part-time legislatures. Arizona pays $24,000 and Colorado, $30,000. This amounts to an honorarium, leaving potential legislators stuck with New Mexico’s implicit requirements of wealth, a flexible law practice throwing off extra cash or being a teacher willing to bail from the classroom for a couple of months every year. 

A legislator told me last year that his service costs him about $25,000 every year.

That’s our reality.

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