New Mexico has the distinction of being the only state in the country that does not pay a salary to members of its legislature.
Representatives and senators receive a per diem and mileage, but nothing more despite the many hours they spend writing, debating and considering legislation.
That can have unfortunate consequences.
For one thing, failure to pay legislators for their work limits who can serve. The independently wealthy or those who are retired and don’t need a paycheck can serve more easily. Not everyone can take off work for a month or two every year.
That’s far from the only issue. The laws legislators vote on affect every area of the life in New Mexico, including the jobs citizen lawmakers take up when the Roundhouse closes.
Lawmakers generally recuse themselves if legislation benefits their interests directly but often stay involved if the law in question deals with their entire industry. Sometimes the calls about what constitutes a conflict can be close.
With a new industry coming to New Mexico — adult cannabis use — conflicts are coming fast and hard, underscoring the point that a citizen legislature is a relic that needs to be discarded.
A few recent cannabis conflicts show why the Legislature needs to change.
House Speaker Brian Egolf has represented Ultra Health, the giant among cannabis companies, in a lawsuit against the state. State Sen. Jacob Candelaria now works as Ultra’s attorney.
Most recently, state Sen. Katy Duhigg, a co-sponsor of Cannabis Regulation Act, had been an attorney specializing in medical malpractice. She announced she is opening a practice helping individuals and business navigate what promises to be a maze of cannabis regulations. She sponsored the legislation establishing a new industry and will make her living from that industry.
She told The New Mexican she did not disclose her intentions during the recent legislative session because at that time, she had no idea her professional life would take such a turn.
“Had this been something I was planning on doing,” she said, “I should have and would have made that disclosure. But it didn’t exist then and, honestly, it didn’t even occur to me.”
Marijuana is not the only industry where conflicts exist — teachers vote on education bills, doctors on health issues or malpractice legislation and defense attorneys on any number of laws affecting criminals. Conflict is part and parcel of a part-time, citizen Legislature.
“The fix to that is to professionalize our Legislature, as every other state has done,” Duhigg said.
She is correct, although the prospect of a poor state paying lawmakers is always a hard sell.
Citizens tend to be skeptical about taxing themselves to put money in the pockets of politicians. Efforts to create a commission that would set salaries for public officers, including legislators, have failed in past years, including a proposed constitutional amendment in 2019 that died in the Senate.
A better perspective is this: Citizens should tax themselves to ensure the men and women making laws have few conflicts and the time to do the job right.