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Capitol Gains

New Mexico’s ‘citizen legislators’ can pull in $40,000 tax-free

March 8, 2017, 12:00 am

August 2016 was a busy month for state Rep. Jimmie Hall. It started with a two-day meeting in Albuquerque, then two days in Las Cruces. Hall spent five days in Chicago for a national legislative conference. The next week, he had a three-day committee hearing in Alamogordo. The week after that, another three days in Red River.

By month’s end, Hall had racked up $5,389.84 in mileage and per diem—the payments lawmakers get for each day spent on the job.

An Albuquerque Republican, Hall serves on six interim committees, which do the Legislature’s substantial legwork before the 30- and 60-day sessions each January. But he loves the work. Hall’s voice breaks just a touch when he talks about reading through hundreds of years of history in the family Bible with a land grant heir on a recent committee trip.

“That’s an exceptional privilege,” he says. “How do you put a value on that?”

Officially, the value is measured at $0. Hall and his fellow lawmakers do not earn a salary. New Mexico is the last state in the nation with a true “citizen legislature,” comprised of people with other careers or retirement checks. Yet, they can—and do—get paid for doing the people’s business.

Legislators call that money a reimbursement, but they don’t have to hand over receipts for the daily payments or prove they drove the mileage from home. All told, a one-day interim committee meeting in Santa Fe will earn an Albuquerque legislator about $225 of tax-free compensation.

A review by SFR using records obtained through the state Inspection of Public Records Act showed $1.6 million doled out to lawmakers in 2016 for mileage and per diem paid for trips to Santa Fe and around the state for interim committee meetings.

How much legislators collect varies widely. What they’re paid for does, too. In addition to his trips for committee meetings around the state, Hall’s busy August included airfare, registration and the standard $163 a day for an annual gathering of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Former Sen. Lee Cotter, R-Fairacres, topped the list of New Mexico’s 112 senators and representatives with $39,618 in payments. Former Sen. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque, was at the bottom. She filed for $5,508.

Santa Fe’s delegation, hailing from the seat of state government, was not highly compensated. Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, was far and away the highest-paid among capital denizens, earning $22,621 in per diem and mileage. Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who was House Minority Leader in 2016, filed for $7,180.

When he’s not legislating, Egolf is a partner at the Santa Fe law firm Egolf, Ferlic and Harwood. The 90 days he figures he’ll spend in Santa Fe this year (for which he can claim compensation, even though he lives here) would total about $15,000 in per diem payments. For an eight-hour day, that’s about $20 an hour. He charges clients far more for legal work.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to complain about it, right? Because we all volunteered for the job,” he says. “And if any one of us didn’t want to be here, there’d be plenty of people in line behind us to fill the position.”

Not everyone believes that. In 2016, just 23 of 224 primaries were contested. Even in the general election, where competition is more likely, only 42 of 112 legislators drew an opponent.

Freshman representative Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, faced down an opponent to win her seat. She’d like to see professional legislators at the Roundhouse earning full-time pay for what can be a full-time job.

“There are people who could be the future but can’t take time off to leave,” Rubio tells SFR during a break in the action at the Capitol. It’s not that she finds her colleagues lazy. But the nonprofit consultant sees plenty of people who are able to serve because they work as lawyers or ranchers or union-protected workers. Other lawmakers are retired.

Rubio is sponsoring a non-binding memorial to study the effectiveness of the Legislature, including whether it’s advisable to provide a salary.

“I don’t think a lot of voters realize we don’t get paid,” she says.

Even if Rubio’s right, she faces the challenge of convincing both fellow lawmakers and voters that a professional Legislature is worth paying for.

Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, collected $31,179 last year, second-highest among legislators. He doesn’t buy the argument about a full-time salary attracting more diverse candidates. “You gotta want to be here, to have that desire to do something for people,” he says.

Still, he knows the job has changed since statehood in 1912. Back then there were lawyers—there are always lawyers—but many of the legislators were farmers or ranchers who could meet in January for a month or two and return home. Government was smaller. Running it didn’t take as much staff or as much work.

Cisneros and Egolf say a more robust staff would help professionalize the Legislature and make it more effective. All lawmakers have an assistant during the session, but few if any can afford an office or an assistant the other 10 or 11 months of the year.

The job is bigger now, but legislators like Albuquerque’s Hall insist that a citizen legislature helps ensure he and his colleagues stay focused on service.

“I truly hope that the day will never come when we decide to pay the Legislature.”

Who racked up the most in per diem and reimbursement? 

*Legislators who live within 50 miles of the Capitol ordinarily pay taxes on mileage and per diem, which means Santa Fe's delegation is taxed.

 

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