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Proposal would professionalize only unsalaried legislature

State Budget New Mexico
Morgan Lee/AP
Visitors stroll through the New Mexico state Capitol building in Santa Fe, N.M., on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022. State legislators are anticipating a multibillion-dollar financial windfall largely from surging oil production and robust energy prices in the era of war between Ukraine and Russia. Lawmakers will meet in January 2023 to craft a spending plan for the coming fiscal year. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Lawmakers in New Mexico — the nation's only unsalaried legislature — are looking for ways instill greater professionalism in their work that could result in a steady paycheck and lengthier legislative calendar.

Democratic state State Rep. Joy Garratt of Albuquerque told the Santa Fe New Mexican that she plans to co-sponsor a ballot initiative to create a commission with the authority to set salaries for legislators. Legislative approval is required to schedule the vote.

Members of the New Mexico House and Senate receive a daily stipend and reimbursement for travel that can add add up to more than $20,000 in some instances, with an optional pension plan for long-serving lawmakers.

New Mexico's Legislature meets for as few as 30 days a year, with 60-day sessions in odd-numbered years. There are more extensive duties and travel for members of year-round budget and policy committees.

This unsalaried status has been a source of public pride in the "citizens' legislature." Critics of the system say legislative salaries would help younger candidates who hail from working households serve as lawmakers and alleviate conflicts between legislative advocacy and private careers.

A new study by University of New Mexico professors Timothy Krebs and Michael Rocca ranks the state near the bottom of legislatures in its capacity to perform a wide range of government oversight duties and acquire broad expertise.

Legislators from Connecticut to Oregon recently cited meager financial compensation in their decisions to resign or leave office without seeking reelection.

In several states, bills that would increase pay for legislators faltered in 2022 amid fears that lawmakers might anger voters by approving their own pay raises.

In New Mexico, money is currently no obstacle to expanding pay for legislators. State government is forecasting a multibillion-dollar windfall from surging oil production and robust energy prices.

Economists estimate state government income of nearly $12 billion for the fiscal year running from July 2023 to June 2024. That revenue would exceed current annual general fund spending obligations by 43% or $3.6 billion.