Tradition can be grounding. American’s love affair with efficiency doesn’t always create better outcomes. But for New Mexico’s legislature, changing some traditions and creating efficiency would benefit our citizens and legislators.
I spent a lot of time at the roundhouse during the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions, advocating for libraries. I have fundamental differences with some legislators about what is best for our state, but I respect them all. They work long hours and educate themselves on a wide range of issues. For some, addressing the needs of their constituents is a full time job.
New Mexico is the only state that doesn’t pay it’s legislators. We should. A salary would make it easier for younger, forward thinking people to serve and allow legislators the time to address their communities’ issues.
The legislature’s sessions last one month on even numbered years, two months on odd numbered years. That is not enough time to craft the budget and thoughtfully consider legislation. By the end of the session legislators work late every night and arrive early the next morning. It is neither healthy nor conducive to wise decision making.
State Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, suggested to me that sessions should be three months each year. I agree. Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Bernalillo, suggested that after the first month there could be a week for legislators to consult with their constituents. Another good idea.
The legislature’s ceremonial responsibilities are important to constituents. For example, it’s proper to honor families who foster children. They are heroes. But the legislature can spend hours introducing each member of foster families from throughout the state. Then their representative tells a story about them.
Or legislators may talk for over an hour about the importance of railroads to the state. Meanwhile, hundreds of bills haven’t been considered, many good, and the end of the session is close.
Sen. Ortiz y Pino recommended that a limited time be scheduled for each ceremonial subject, perhaps 20 minutes. Legislators could sign up to speak beforehand.
But the most important issue is the legislature’s undemocratic power structure. It needs an overhaul. Senate Finance Committee Chair John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and Legislative Finance Committee director David Abbey wield too much power over the budget. I believe they are well meaning and feel they have the best interests of the state at heart, but their decisions don’t always serve us well.
Standing committees of the legislature, such as Health and Human Services and Education work countless hours studying the needs of each sector, yet their recommendations to the Finance committe are often ignored. Sen. Ortiz y Pino said on the Senate floor that if committees’ expertise and recommendations aren’t considered, they are a waste of legislators’ time and taxpayer money.
He suggested to me that the Finance Committee could determine an amount to spend on Human Services, for example. Then that committee should have the power to apportion the appropriation to address the needs of that sector.
David Abbey and the staff at the Finance Committee craft a budget each year that is presented to House and Senate finance committee members. The committee fine tunes the budget (HB2) and holds hearings throughout the state. The House proposes HB2 to the Senate.
Senate Finance makes changes to the bill and is supposed to return it to the House a week before the end of the session to craft to an agreement. Instead, Abbey and Sen. Smith make changes in secret and hold the bill past the deadline. When the budget goes to the floor of the Senate, legislators have mere hours to look at it before they vote. It then goes to the House where there is not time to reach a compromise.
This year House Majority leader Brian Egolf said, “The complete and total secrecy with which they have done this puts the House and the people of New Mexico in a really difficult spot.” Smith likes to portray himself as the “adult in the room,” but his arbitrary cuts have real effects on New Mexicans.
For example, for the second year in a row, he cut budgeted contributions to the Rural Library Endowment Fund, for which I advocate. Libraries provide the only services in some rural communities. Most rural librarians’ salaries are near minimum wage. Again, they will have to wait for a raise. Vital services remain underfunded.
Short sessions and unpaid legislators may seem to save us money. What is the real cost? The status quo conserves tradition, maintaining the power of certain legislators. But neither the status quo nor the so-called wisdom of the adults in the room have lifted New Mexico from the bottom of so many measures of success. It’s time for a change.
Shel Neymark is a community activist who resides in Embudo.