N.M. Legislature approves study of district offices, staff for every lawmaker

‘Feed bill’ includes $2.5 million to study modernizing the legislative branch

By: - January 20, 2023 4:30 am

The New Mexico Legislature is the only state Legislature in the United States whose lawmakers receive no salary. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Both chambers of the New Mexico Legislature in the first week of this year’s session approved an initial move to provide all 112 lawmakers with field offices and full-time staff.

The Senate on Thursday afternoon approved House Bill 1 in a 33-5 vote. The House approved it on Wednesday. Called the feed bill, it sets aside $57.4 million to pay for the 2023 legislative session and to keep the Roundhouse running later this year after the session ends.

The feed bill typically passes without much controversy, but this year some Republicans opposed it because it includes $2.5 million to pay for a feasibility study of how other legislatures around the country have handled professionalization and modernization.

The New Mexico Legislature is the only state Legislature in the country whose lawmakers receive no salary, according to a report by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico.

Lawmakers are eligible for a per diem of $150 per day over a 60-day regular session, or about $9,000 per lawmaker per year, the report found.

New Mexico faces unique challenges because it is the fifth-largest state by geographic area, House Floor Leader Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque), the feed bill’s sponsor, told the Senate Finance Committee earlier on Thursday.

For example, Chasey pointed to House District 49, which encompasses parts of Catron, Sierra, Socorro and Valencia Counties. She said it is “the largest geographic House district in the country.”

“We have districts that are larger than the state of Rhode Island, and are equivalent to the state of Massachusetts,” she said. “So how are we meeting the needs of our constituents, whether it’s constituent services, or policy studies?”

While Chasey’s district is relatively compact, she needs full-time staff, she said, to research issues her constituents bring to her.

The study would look at the logistics and resources needed for district staff offices and operations for the Legislature, according to the bill’s text.

If Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs the bill into law, the Legislative Council would go through a competitive bidding process to hire a consulting company to conduct the research, Chasey said.

The study is just one of several measures expected to come up this session that would reshape the Legislature.

House Joint Resolution 2, if passed, would ask voters to decide whether to extend the length of every legislative session to 60 days. (As things stand, even-numbered years see a 30-day, budget-focused session, while odd-numbered years see a 60-day session with more topics up for consideration.)

A measure introduced last year would have created an independent commission to set salaries for lawmakers and many other elected officials. If a similar measure is to be weighed this year, it must be introduced by Feb. 16.

Providing full-time staffers to every lawmaker could cost between $26 million and $30 million, Sen. George Muñoz said on the Senate floor Thursday.

Overall, the feed bill includes $11.7 million to pay for the session and $45.7 million for the various legislative agencies’ spending all year long, including the Legislative Council Service, the Legislative Finance Committee, the Legislative Education Study Committee, and the House and Senate chief clerk offices.

Senator questions process

The committee approved the bill after Sen. Bill Sharer (R-Farmington) tried unsuccessfully three times to amend it to remove funding for the study. His motions to amend all failed in 7-4 votes along party lines.

Sharer said the study is probably worth doing, but the funding for it belongs in the omnibus budget bill. 

“We’ve been 110 years doing it this way,” he said. “Waiting five more months for the regular budget to get it there, it wouldn’t break us.”

Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla asked Sharer if he would support the study if it was moved into the state budget legislation.

“It wouldn’t give me heartburn,” Sharer said.

“Heartburn means a lot of things to a lot of different people,” Padilla responded.


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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.