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Women in New Mexico Legislature make the case for an annual salary

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Roz Brown

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(New Mexico News Connection) New Mexico's Legislature is becoming more diverse but its lawmakers are still the only ones unpaid in the nation, limiting who can afford to serve, and some lawmakers want voters to change it.

For several years a group of legislators -- all women and all Democrats -- have advocated for modernizing the system to provide lawmakers with a base salary.

Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, said many women and people of color don't have jobs allowing them to serve, which is why until recently, both chambers were primarily dominated by wealthy white men. 

"It doesn't look like that anymore, but there's so many people that would be excellent legislators, but they can't quit their jobs - there's not the kind of support that they need."

Garratt said the bill to pay lawmakers a salary saw some traction in 2023 but this year's short, 30-day session stalled efforts.

If it is successful next year, the bill would send a constitutional amendment to voters to decide. Legislators' pay amounts would then be determined by a citizens' commission, which Republican lawmakers have said could be dangerous unless there is a salary cap. 

Some argued without a salary, it is difficult to govern effectively with committee meetings, planning sessions, calls and emails coming in all year. When Garratt was elected, she was still teaching school but said her union contract allowed professional leave for legislative duties.

While lawmakers receive a per diem rate of about $200 per day to cover some expenses, Garratt believes a salary might make running for office a feasible option for parents and other full-time workers.

"We're not California with $112,000 salaries; we're not New York with $146,000, we're New Mexico," Garratt stressed. "We're not looking for this elaborate salary but we're looking for more of a living wage-type salary."

Garratt would like to see a separate referendum passed to make all legislative sessions 60 days. New Mexico's are among the shortest legislative sessions in the U.S.