Why Doesn’t New Mexico Pay Local Legislators?

New Mexico continues to be the only state to not pay local legislators and other local officials.


As members of the only legislature in the country that offers no salary for serving in office, representatives of New Mexico are once again proposing the controversial motion that they get paid.

Under an amendment offered in July 2021, The State Ethics Commission could potentially gain the power to set salaries for lawmakers in two-year increments. The amendment would place the responsibility of reviewing the salaries for all state elected officials, judicial and executive, in the hands of the commission. However, before any specific salaries are to be reviewed, the amendment requires voter approval.

This is not the first time New Mexico legislators have tried to establish payment for their service. Voters have repeatedly rejected proposals of this nature since the 1940s, making it seem unlikely one will pass anytime soon. Most recently in February 2020, a bid to pay representatives ended up stalling on the Senate floor before it could reach a final vote. Despite the support of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and the backing of many state senators, lawmakers are yet to succeed in their efforts.

Opinions on paying local legislators vary immensely. Avid supporters argue paying salaries would diversify the pool of candidates in state races and allow candidates from a broader spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds a more fair chance at holding office.

Most state representatives work either a part-time or full-time additional job to make a living. According to Rep. Roberto Gonzales (D-NM-6), those who don’t work jobs outside of sessions “have to be wealthy, retired or have a very supportive employer.”

This makes it especially difficult for parents, young people, or less wealthy individuals to stand a chance at maintaining an office, limiting the pool of qualified candidates, and creating a less diverse congressional workforce than New Mexico has the potential for. A wide range of candidates would allow for greater representation of minorities, offering a voice to those who don’t currently see themselves or the issues pertinent to them being advocated for in offices of power.

“Tradition has left many of our communities out,” said Las Cruces Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-NM-35). “This isn’t about getting paid. This isn’t about benefits and retirement…This is about who is being left out of this system, who is being left out of this conversation.”

As of now, lawmakers receive daily stipends for attending sessions or other meetings. Rates set by the federal government determine stipends, as well as change them on a regular basis. For example, Office-holders received $161 per day in January 2019. However, this price rose and fell as tourism fluctuated in Santa Fe. Legislators are also offered aid in traveling to annual sessions. However, only one round-trip from Santa Fe is paid for.
For those who oppose paying salaries to legislators, the proposal represents an unnecessary expansion of government control, as well as a blatant disregard for the state’s constitutional disapproval of legislator salaries.

New Mexico has operated as a “citizen legislature” since it became a state in 1912. A volunteer-based government was established from the start in order to avoid having full-time politicians serve in the state legislature. The idea is for politicians to remain as close to fellow citizens as possible, working jobs outside of the elected office, and bringing their individual identities and experiences into congressional roles. Not receiving a salary is intended to encourage this.

As stated by Sen. Ivey-Soto (D-NM-15), “We have it in our constitution that we shall not be paid. There’s been a fair amount of history on this over the years where there have been attempts to change the narrative, and part of the problem is the general public thinks we’re overpaid as it is because, after all, what rational person would do what we do for nothing?”

Paying 112 legislators would likely cost millions of dollars. Citizens argue that money could be better spent. Additionally, dishing out salaries would break the citizen-first government ideal envisioned by the Constitution’s drafters.

Whether the bid becomes a reality or shares the failure of those in the past, the debate over reforming the legislative landscape of New Mexico will surely endure.