Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE — As a single mother and legislator, Tara Lujan knew she couldn’t waste a sunny afternoon.
With her 8-year-old daughter at school earlier this week, she seized the opportunity to knock on doors and collect signatures for her re-election bid.
Sixty miles away, another mom, Rep. Kay Bounkeua of Albuquerque, wasn’t asking anyone for help with the campaign.
Serving in the country’s only non-salaried legislature is just too difficult, she said, especially with a 3-year-old daughter at home.
Bounkeua is one of at least eight members of the New Mexico House who have announced their intention to stand down for re-election or have already resigned. Departures include House Speaker Brian Egolf and others who cited the toll on their families, jobs and personal lives.
The extent of the reshuffle is expected to become clearer by 5 p.m. Tuesday, the deadline for officially declaring a legislative campaign. All 70 House seats are up for grabs this year.
Deciding to run is not necessarily easy for legislators.
The hours can be intense. Twice in the last week of this year’s session, the House worked through the night, including 26.5 hours straight before adjournment.
The salary is not lucrative. New Mexico lawmakers are drawing daily payments — based on federal per diems — of $170 to $200, or about $5,200 for this year’s 30-day session. They also benefit from mileage reimbursement and an optional pension plan.
In an interview, Lujan, a first-term Santa Fe Democrat, said she looks forward to serving in the House. But she draws on her savings and the help of family members to make it work.
“It’s almost undoable, to be honest with you,” she told the Journal. “There have been many moments where I thought, how long – what is the sustainability of doing this kind of work at the pace it requires?
For Bounkeua, the decision to quit came after two exhausting and combative sessions – one focused on redistricting last year, the other a regular 30-day session.
Appointed in August, she said she knew it would be difficult to balance the needs of her family, her regular job at the Wilderness Society and the Legislative Assembly.
“You have to put the kiddo first,” Bounkeua said. “It was really difficult for me to do this while juggling a full-time job – my day job – as well as legislative duties.”
Bounkeua, a Democrat who represents the International District of Albuquerque, has exhausted her vacation and will take unpaid days off to attend committee hearings held the rest of the year.
Making it work, of course, is possible, even for working families, some lawmakers say.
Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, has three sons – the youngest of whom was 11 when she joined the House around 10 years ago. She said her family understood that serving in the Legislature meant she would spend at least a month or two each year in Santa Fe, about 90 miles away.
“It’s not easy, but public service is not easy,” Fajardo said. “It’s a sacrifice we all make.”
Outside of legislative duties, she owns a small business and works as a real estate broker.
The legislature meets for regular sessions of 30 or 60 days on an alternating basis. There are also shorter special sessions – four in the past two years – dedicated to specific topics.
Meetings of the bicameral committee take place between sessions.
In the House, MPs face primary and general elections every two years. Thus, each 30-day session leads to the campaign season. The Senate is elected every four years.
Repeated attempts to establish a salary for legislators or to revise the length and structure of legislative sessions have failed.
This year alone, a compensation-focused constitutional amendment proposal cleared one Senate committee and died in its second without reaching the floor of either house.
The legislation, Joint Senate Resolution 8, would have asked the state Ethics Commission to review and set the salaries of elected officials in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government.
In 2021, a proposal to create a legislative process review commission won House approval 41-26, but made no progress in any Senate committee, let alone reach the full Senate.
That measure, House Bill 301, would have created a group to develop policy recommendations on transparency, compensation, staff support, sessional rules and funding for capital spending projects.
Also in 2021, a proposal backed by House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, called for extending legislative sessions from an even year to 45 days and removing limitations on what could be put on the agenda. Joint House Resolution 13 passed the House by a vote of 45 to 21 and passed through its only Senate committee, before dying at the end of the session.
As for salary, New Mexico is the only state that does not offer a specific salary for lawmakers, although a salary is not a guarantee of good pay. New Hampshire, for example, offers a $100 annual salary with no per diem, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
California and New York, on the other hand, pay salaries of at least $110,000 a year.
Many states offer a combination of mileage reimbursement, per diem, and salary.
Arizona lawmakers, for example, receive $24,000 a year, plus mileage and per diem, depending on where they live.
In New Mexico, mileage and per diems are intended to cover travel, accommodation, and meal expenses, but no base salary is provided. Legislators also have the option of participating in a statutory pension plan.
Speaker Egolf, a Democrat from Santa Fe who has held the Legislature’s most powerful post since 2017, surprised his colleagues last month by announcing in the closing minutes of the session that he would not run for office this year.
He said he wanted to spend more time with his 11- and 14-year-old daughters and his wife, Kelly.
Bounkeua, for her part, made it clear in announcing her decision that she thinks New Mexico should modernize its legislature by offering a salary and considering other changes, perhaps longer or full-year sessions. .
The public is not well served, she said, by the crushing of the final days of a session — when separate bills are bundled together, surprise amendments appear and sleep-deprived lawmakers make decisions final on what to support.
“To get everything done in 30 days,” she says, “is almost impossible. You want to make decisions that feel very informed and supported by the community. You can’t do that if things are going so fast.
Lujan said she gave up a job in the state to join the Legislative Assembly and was looking for a job that would allow her to take the breaks needed to continue serving in the House. She saved money to ease the transition, and her family’s help was essential.
“My extended family,” Lujan said, “is really central to how I do everything.”
Although lawmakers deserve a salary, she said, it should be tied to stricter ethical rules prohibiting conflicts of interest.
As things stand, for example, teachers, farmers and energy executives sitting in the Legislative Assembly vote on legislation affecting their industry or profession. Recusal is required only in limited circumstances.
Fajardo said a salary was not the answer. Even if lawmakers earn, say, $30,000 a year, she said, many of them will keep their jobs on the outside anyway, costing taxpayers money without fundamentally changing the legislature.
A key improvement, she said, would be increased staff to help lawmakers assess bills and serve constituents. A predictable schedule of committee hearings and floor sessions, she said, would also help lawmakers plan their time.
“There’s a balancing act that we all have to do,” Fajardo said. “It’s like that.”