Well, what do you know? Another special session has been called for the first week of April. This is ostensibly to work out the vetoed “junior bill” wherein the Legislature doles out capital outlay for individual legislators’ pet projects. But wait! There’s more! Now the governor wants to issue tax rebates to every New Mexican to kick off her re-election campaign to offset rising gas prices.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The junior bill, and the issues surrounding capital outlay and how it is assigned and allocated, are worthy of further debate. Both parties want to see it revived. And both parties are interested in taking record oil and gas revenues and putting some of that in the hands of individual New Mexicans. They just have different terms for it.

But there was no way the capital outlay system was going to be overhauled and a tax rebate program created in a 30-day legislative session. It will be a stretch to tackle these two items in a $50,000/day special session.

Quite simply, New Mexico has outgrown our legislative structure. And it is hurting the way our state operates.

Look at legalizing cannabis. It was the main focus of the 60-day 2021 session, the subject of a nearly year-long working group before that and still required a special session to get it across the line. And the legislation is frustratingly opaque.

Not only does New Mexico need its legislators in Santa Fe for longer periods of time, it needs to pay them. Thanks to modern-day campaign realities, we are asking would-be legislators to raise up to $100,000 in donations and work around the clock to win an election to obtain an unpaid volunteer position. Who wouldn’t sign up for that?

Even with our short sessions, alternating 60 and 30 days, it’s enough of a time commitment that our legislators are generally: a) independently wealthy; b) self-employed; c) retired; d) embezzling (see: Sheryl Williams Stapleton, et al); or e) some combination of the above. This is not reflective of our population and prevents many good candidates from running due to lack of compensation and being unable to take off work for one or two months at a time.

I have heard the argument, “We are a poor state. This is not the time to start paying our politicians.” I respectfully disagree. We can’t afford not to. We are getting exactly what we pay for right now: a body of privileged (or bent) elites with no obligation but their volunteerism to deliver better results for their constituents.

I know, I know, I’ve just pointed out that the special session is going to run $50K/day. How the hell are we going to pay legislators a salary, and pay for longer sessions? The same way we created permanent funding for early childhood projects: Create a state permanent investment fund.

The Early Childhood and Care Fund, created in 2020 with $300 million, more than doubled its funds by 2021, and is projected to reach $4.3 billion by 2025 (If the Legislature can keep its mitts off it. There have already been attempts to “expand” the purpose of these funds.).

It’s a perfect model for how to fund a professional, salaried Legislature. Create a permanent fund—the Legislature’s own 401k plan if you will—in the 2023 session. Increase the 2024 budget session to 60 days. Pay the sitting Legislature (which will be elected this year) for that session.

Starting in the 2025 session, after which both chambers of the Legislature will be newly elected, pay legislators a salary, and establish alternating session lengths of 90 and 60 days. The 2025 session would be the first 90-day session.

It will be important for Legislative Council Services and the press to monitor: the volume of bills scheduled for hearing; those that are voted upon; those sent to the floor for a full chamber vote; and those chaptered into law. It will also be important to assess the quality of lawmaking. Given the late-night scrambles of recent sessions, recent exposés into backroom behavior, and the inscrutability of major legislation like legalizing cannabis, some of the qualitative analysis should be fairly straightforward.

New Mexico’s citizens are wearying of the same old, same old. Now is the time to bring our legislative branch up to the standard its voters deserve. A paid, professional Legislature is not just nice-to-have-what-those other states “do”; it’s an imperative to propel our state to regional parity and appropriate responsiveness to its residents.

Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appears regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. A Republican, she lives amicably with her Democratic husband north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at news.ind.merritt@gmail.com.