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A bill in New Mexico proposes paying its state lawmakers

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Across most of the U.S., being a state lawmaker is a part-time job, and almost every state pays lawmakers at least some salary, except for New Mexico. But that could change this year. KUNM's Alice Fordham reports on the sensitive subject of politicians voting to pay themselves.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Each state compensates lawmakers differently, from more than $140,000 in New York state to just $100 a year in New Hampshire. In New Mexico, legislators do get a per diem during the legislative session and retirement benefits, but they don't get a penny for the actual work they do. And some representatives say that's a challenge.

KAY BOUNKEUA: You go into these spaces, you have the idealism, you have the hope for a change. And also I found myself in this place where I'm still working full-time at my regular job. I've got a 3-year-old kid at home.

FORDHAM: This is Kay Bounkeua. In 2021, she was selected to fill a vacancy in New Mexico's House after a Democratic representative stepped down. She was the first Asian American woman in New Mexico's legislature.

BOUNKEUA: I just wanted the possibilities of what we could bring as a community, but also what our children could see themselves doing moving into the future.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Vocalizing).

FORDHAM: When we meet, her daughter plays while Bounkeua takes a break from her work for the Wilderness Society. The legislature here meets for 30 days and 60 days on alternating years. Plus, many legislators attend committees the rest of the year. She says the unpaid work was unsustainable for a working parent.

BOUNKEUA: I don't even know how the duality of, like, (laughter) having a full-time day job where you're being paid, having a full-time job that you also absolutely believe in, that gives you zero compensation and the demands you have from your family life - how can you do that well? And also how can you ask anybody to do that?

FORDHAM: She decided not to run again at the end of her term. Democratic Representative Angelica Rubio says she has trouble recruiting candidates who have to work for a living.

ANGELICA RUBIO: We have such a hard time getting people to run because there's just no salary.

FORDHAM: She is sponsoring a proposal to ask voters whether to change the state constitution to allow legislators to be paid and to set up a commission to figure out how much. Separate proposals are being debated to extend the sessions, and a study is planned on the feasibility of having paid staff.

RUBIO: It's about making sure that there are more people and more experiences at the table to make policy that is more meaningful to the communities that we're serving.

FORDHAM: Voters could well agree to pay legislators. Common Cause New Mexico, which does advocate for a paid legislature, did a poll which shows most people support the idea. Most Republican lawmakers oppose it, with some saying that service should be voluntary and others objecting to an unelected commission setting the salary. And some experts, like professor of public policy at Duke University Nicholas Carnes, say paying lawmakers for their time doesn't necessarily diversify the legislature economically.

NICHOLAS CARNES: We found that actually states with higher salaries didn't have any more people from working-class occupations running or getting into office.

FORDHAM: Still, Michael Rocca, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, says paid lawmakers are a key part of improving state governance.

MICHAEL ROCCA: Those who are paid have greater staff, have longer sessions, are able to deliver more innovative policy, as one example. That is a better match to constituency preferences, as a second example.

FORDHAM: He says in New Mexico, with deep problems in education, inequality and crime, such innovation is urgently needed. The proposal to pay lawmakers has passed the House and is due to be debated in the Senate, but the legislature wraps at the week end. This innovation might not make it into law this year. For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Santa Fe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.