Another 60-day legislative session has come and gone in New Mexico, but debate about legislature modernization is ongoing.
A report on legislative modernization from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research was recently made public and includes new information not included in preliminary results shared late last year. It explores legislators’ feelings on topics of payment, staffing and session length.
“Since becoming a state in 1912, the complexity of running and effectively managing the modern New Mexico government has increased, causing some to call for legislative reforms. This report has combined a brief historical and structural overview of recent calls for legislative reform with voices from inside the legislature, aiming to bring together divergent and convergent ideas into one forum to help facilitate the continued conversation on legislative modernization in New Mexico.”- Excerpt from General Examination of Legislative Modernization in New Mexico
The state legislature appropriated funds during the 2022 legislative session for BBER to investigate the topics. Specifically, BBER was charged with surveying and interviewing members of the legislature to determine how often legislators worked without compensation, if they felt they needed more staff, feelings about session length and structure and whether or not they thought legislators should be paid.
Legislators and staff took anonymous surveys and could opt-in to be interviewed. All the identifying data was scrubbed for confidentiality so participants could feel comfortable sharing their opinions.
The study found that 80.7% of legislators surveyed did not feel they have enough time to complete the tasks required of them in their roles, among other findings. Nearly everyone interviewed for the study criticized the 30-day session length used in even-numbered years. The report includes quotes from unnamed respondents.
“We are writing an $8 billion dollar budget in 30 days! That is insufficient time for the complexity of the work,” one unnamed legislator told investigators.
This study is particularly unique for its inclusion of the opinions of legislative staff, many of whom expressed feeling like legislators did not understand their jobs.
“Legislators are so busy that they often don't even have the time to seek help with what they need,” an unnamed staff member told investigators.
New Mexico is the only state in the country that does not pay its state legislators a salary, but the BBER study found that nearly 83% of legislators surveyed believe they should be compensated for their work. As of now, New Mexico’s legislators only receive mileage and per diem.
Rose Elizabeth Rohrer, the lead BBER research scientist on the study, said support for the research has been mixed and BBER staff have worked hard to collect a sample of legislators representative of all party affiliations and areas of the state. Party affiliation was left optional on the legislator survey.
“We’ve been trying to really protect people’s opinions. These are bipartisan issues, but a lot of people don’t want to say so,” Rohrer said. “It’s bad optics to say, 'I want to pay myself.’”
The report utilized average wages of New Mexicans with different education levels or positions in government to estimate the cost of paying legislators and includes a chart of other states’ legislator salaries.
In the survey, 90% of legislators reported working 30 or more days a year without any compensation, meaning they were not paid a per diem or travel reimbursement. For many, that means paying to be a state legislator. Some legislators reported losses of more than $10,000 in money spent on gas, hotels and car maintenance while on official business because of discrepancies in what are considered necessary duties. One legislator reported losing nearly $40,000 during one session in travel and repairs. Legislators who live farthest from Santa Fe and who represent the largest districts are at a particular financial disadvantage, according to Rohrer. Drives to meet with constituents for meetings or other purposes are not covered by travel reimbursement.
“It does feel underfunded. Whether it’s salary or not, it does feel like they are under-supported financially and with staff.” - Rose Elizabeth Rohrer
Though similar studies have been done on other state legislatures, BBER’s study is unique in its inclusion of staff in the survey and interview process. According to Rohrer, staff interviews and surveys revealed a problem with understaffing and the misutilization of staff. Staff described being overworked and frequently asked to work outside their job descriptions. Only a third of staff reported they believe legislators know what staff do.
The sentiment was shared by legislators, some of whom said they did not understand the services available to them from staff until they’d been in office for several years. That’s a problem when some state legislators only serve one two-year term.
“There is a misunderstanding of what can be done in the existing institutions. How can we better keep legislators informed without putting the burden on them to stay informed? Because they don’t have a salary. It’s all tangled," Rohrer said.
The study revealed other challenges legislators and staff face, too.
“Because of the way certain staff are appointed or elected, there is also sometimes a mistrust across party lines about whether the staff will keep your information confidential,” she said. “There are multiple problems meaning that our staff is both overutilized and misutilized and throwing more staff at the problem will help, but it’s not going to be a perfect solution, that's something that came across in the staff interviews and survey.”
When asked about the type of additional staff needed, legislators in different parts of the state had different answers. Legislators in rural and metro areas expressed different needs.
Rural legislators, who described being regularly contacted about issues like trash service and other problems voters faced, would like assistance with constituent services. Legislators in urban areas more frequently asked for assistance with scheduling and research. Should staff positions be created to assist legislators, Rohrer said it is likely the staff would be a new state employee classification and would need a wide variety of skills.
BBER’s study sought only to identify, as anonymously as possible, how legislators feel about the issues. Formal recommendations from BBER were limited to what needs additional staff would have and the study did not advise the legislature on what it should do about pay, session length or other issues.
Read the final report online.