On January 17 the 2023 New Mexico legislative session will begin its 60-day session. Amongst the legislation that should be considered is abolishing New Mexico’s part time “Citizens Legislature” and the creation of a full time, professional legislature.
REPORT ON LEGISLATIVE PROFESSIONALISM
According to a University of New Mexico study, the New Mexico Legislature is near the bottom in legislative professionalism. The 55-page study is called A Report on Legislative Professionalism for the State of New Mexico. It was written by UNM Professors Timothy Krebs and Michael Rocca. The study calls for basic changes in the New Mexico’s legislature with the aim at increasing the efficiency and capacity of the institution. This blog article is a discussion and analysis of the report.
The link to read and review the full 55-page report is here:
According to Krebs/Rocca report:
“In 1971, the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures (CCSL) released a landmark assessment of our nation’s state legislatures to gain a better understanding of why our state governments were failing. The CCSL’s report—along with their 1971 book called The Sometime Governments: An Evaluation of the 50 American Legislatures—included sweeping recommendations to strengthen our state legislatures. Among other things, it sought to provide legislatures more resources of time, compensation, staff, and facilities. The result was a massive effort across the nation over the next 50 years to “professionalize” our state legislatures.”
The UNM Report’s Executive Summary begins by framing why professional legislatures are so important and states in part:
“As polarization and gridlock continues to grip national politics, Americans are increasingly looking to states to remedy the nation’s most significant challenges. The burden has fallen to the states to address complex issues such as health care, immigration, infrastructure, energy, and the environment. Perhaps the federal government’s continued inaction compared to state governments’ action, is one reason why Americans trust their state government far more than their federal government. But this wasn’t always the case. In the 1960s, state governments—particularly their legislatures—were in crisis. Few legislatures had the capacity to address the daunting issues (particularly civil rights and poverty) that were creating massive political, social, and economic unrest in our states and cities.”
FACTORS USED TO MEASURE PROFESSIONALISM
The UNM report defines legislative professionalism as follows:
“The extent to which the legislature can command the full attention of its members, providing them with adequate resources to do their jobs in a manner comparable to other full-time political actors, and setting up organizations and procedures that facilitate law making.”
According to the report, there are 3 major factors used to measure professionalism of a legislature and those factors are 1. session length, 2. support staff and 3. member salary.
Based on accepted measures of professionalism and data available, the study found the following that affects the New Mexico state legislature’s ability to legislate effectively:
- “The New Mexico legislature meets an average of 70.53 legislative days during each biennium (two years) and its the 3rd shortest in the nation.
- New Mexico spends less than $400,000 per legislator on staff every two years, which puts the state 33rd out of 50 in staff spending or the 18th lowest in the nation.
- The New Mexico legislature maintains about 168 permanent staff, or about 1.5 per legislator, which ranks 36 out of 50 states related to employing permanent staff (15th lowest).
- New Mexico remains the only state in the nation whose legislators do not receive a salary, although they do receive per diems for expenses. Most retain their day jobs or are retired or financially able to subsidize their service. Paid legislators no longer carry jobs they must juggle with legislative responsibilities, so they spend more time reviewing research, reports and legislation, ensuring a greater grasp of complex issues.
- The study, which included comparable legislatures from around the country, characterized New Mexico’s structure as a part-time, amateur legislature with dual-career legislators.”
The report stated that it is clear more professionalized legislatures are more effective lawmaking bodies. Legislatures that pay higher salaries write more detailed legislation that allows them to do the following:
- more effectively control state bureaucracies, especially when the legislature is controlled by one party and the governorship controlled by another.
- have a greater capacity than less professionalized legislatures to craft highly complex legislation in response to technical policy issues (e.g. energy regulation).
- be more innovative than their less professionalized counterparts and less prone to imitate the legislative choices of neighboring or similar states.
PROFESSIONALIZING THE LEGISLATURE ONLY GOES SO FAR
The report emphasized that professionalizing and modernizing the legislature needs to go beyond session length, legislator salary, and paid staff. A number of other barriers to effective, efficient legislative practice were noted and include the following:
- “Late start times for committee or chamber hearings. Sessions held after 10 pm or midnight might as well be closed sessions, as most New Mexicans will not stay at the Roundhouse or even remain on Zoom late at night. And certainly New Mexicans with kids to get to school or who have jobs that start at 8 or 9 a.m. will tune out long before midnight. Plus, toward the end of session, these late night hearings can be an everyday event, wearing legislators down and depriving them of time they can be researching bills or communicating with constituents.”
- “Governor’s “call” during short (30-day) sessions. The requirement that only the Governor’s agenda can be considered during a short session severely limits the authority of the legislature, effectively limiting legislators to introducing bills only during 60-day sessions.”
- “The filibusteris a tool used by the minority party to slow down the process and limit what can get done. On the last day of the 2022 session, Republican Sen. Bill Sharer spoke for three hours about baseball and a very inaccurate lesson in NM history, none of which was related to anything on the legislative table. But what was on the table was important election reform legislation that had passed the House and two Senate committees, so this was the last hurdle — except that Sen. Sharer had every intention of talking until the clock ran out and the session ended with election reform dying for lack of time. In truth, there had been plenty of time to conduct a 3-hour hearing and vote to pass important election reform legislation.”
- “Conflict of interest. Legislators who must work may have to vote on legislation that influences the industry in which they work. This occurred throughout the effort to pass legalized cannabis, as both House Speaker Brian Egolf and Senator Jacob Candelaria were attorneys for the cannabis industry. It isn’t just here that we find conflicts of interest, but also as a result of at least two legislators being in relationships with lobbyists. It is unrealistic to expect a legislator not to discuss bills with their partner and equally unrealistic to expect the lobbyist partner not to offer input. The only way to prevent undue lobbyist influence is to require legislators to reveal partner lobbyist or industry ties and then to formulate rules that prevent legislators from voting on bills in which they or their partners have vested interest.”
THREE RECOMMENDATIONS MADE
The report makes 3 recommendations to make New Mexico’s legislature a more professional institution. The 3 recommendations made in the report are:
- Staffing: Increase the number of permanent legislative staff, especially staff connected to individual legislators as opposed to staff that might work for interim committees such as the Legislative Finance Committee or the other permanent, year-round policy committees. Most legislators in NM do not have dedicated staff; they only have access to staff during the legislative session and/or when their work outside the session puts them in contact with institutional staff members. Additional staff support is the best way to increase legislative capacity. Among other benefits, increasing professional staff and broadening their distribution in the legislature will mean greater ability for the legislature to check executive agencies and governmental programs, and for individual legislators to build expertise on policy and to conduct constituency service vital to their constituencies.
- Salary: Work to provide a salary to legislators not because of its effects on the legislature, and more because it is the fair thing to do. Legislative salary as an indicator of professionalism is linked to a number of important phenomena such as who runs, time spent on the job, legislative productivity and non-voting, district legislation, good government reforms, economic development, etc., but the overall effect of salary is probably not as important as staffing. The question here of course will be where that salary is set.
- Days in Session: Days in session should be increased to enhance legislative capacity, especially in bargaining with the executive. Increasing session lengths will allow the legislature to become more involved in making policy, in shaping the budget, and running the government itself. As a result, the legislature will become a constant presence that cannot be ignored by the executive or anyone else.
Providing legislator salaries and increasing the days in the session, as well as providing for the introduction of all substantive legislation during each session, would have to come in the form of amending the state constitution. This would have to be approved by the Legislature and state voters. However, providing staff to each legislator could be accomplished through legislation. as soon as this coming session.
UNM Professor Timothy Krebs had this to say:
“Research shows that more professionalized legislatures have greater to capacity to act in the policy and representational interests of state residents. … Adding legislative staff, paying legislators and increasing time in session will help to modernize New Mexico state government in ways that would benefit both the legislature and its constituents.”
UNM Professor Michael Rocca said that more staff will lead to more innovation, less copy-and-paste legislation from other states, and fewer errors. Rocca sad this:
“Providing staff and salary, lengthening the session—It’s the right thing to do. It’s the fair thing to do — not to reward the legislators, but to provide constituent services, enable more representation and the ability to check interest groups and the governor.”
The link to the quoted news source material is here:
COMMENTARY AND ANALYIS
A growing number of citizens and advocacy groups here in the state are calling for “modernizing” or “professionalizing” the Legislature in 2023. The groups include the New Mexico Ethics Watch, Common Cause New Mexico, the Rio Grande Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters, Indivisible and Retake Democracy. A major transformative change that is long overdue in the state is the professionalization of the New Mexico legislature to a full time paid legislature.
Democrats in the 2023 legislative session will hold a 45-25 majority in the House and a 27-15 edge in the Senate. Democrat Michelle Lujan and Democrats should seize the opportunity during the 2023 legislative session and enact legislation calling for a constitutional amendment where voters can decide to make the New Mexico Legislature a professional, full time, paid legislature.