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Better Off Asking for a Unicorn

Christmas is over, but it’s not too late to state my wishes for the new year, and especially for the fast-approaching legislative session. We get what we pay for at the Legislature — and we shouldn’t expect much, because we don’t pay legislators anything except mileage and expenses. Our amateur state Legislature is the only unpaid one left in the country.

Many voters think that’s great. Legislators should serve out of citizenship and the goodness of their hearts. Some people threaten to vote against anyone who votes to get paid.

But a recent study from the University of New Mexico says that free legislators are not a bargain, and neither is skimping on legislative staff or having short, limited legislative sessions.

Many qualified candidates – those in the middle of successful careers — can’t afford to take time off to serve. We end up with wealthy or retired legislators who aren’t representative of the people. Of course, there’s no guarantee that being young or poor makes you a good legislator, any more than being rich or old prevents you from being a fool.

I interrupt this diatribe about the Legislature to note that Silver City’s town councilors are also unpaid. Some say we get what we pay for. Sometimes no one runs at all. Who can afford to work 20 hours a week for nothing? If you’re foolish enough to run for town council, maybe that proves you’re too foolish to do a good job at it.

Not paying our councilors and mayor is part of the charter we brag about every spring. But we have modified that charter several times since 1878, and we could do it again.

Personally, I look at the Grant County Commission as a model for small towns and state legislators. No one runs for the commission to get rich off the part-time salary, but the pay is enough to allow commissioners to continue careers, and to feel obligated to do the less pleasant parts of the job.

I also agree with the University of New Mexico’s recommendation that we modify having a 60-day session in odd years and a 30-day budget session in even years. Sessions should end when the job is done.

Having a hard-stop to sessions gives leverage to minorities who want to stop bills at the last minute. The current system creates incentives to pass most bills in the last few days, and doesn’t give legislators a reasonable chance to override the governor’s vetoes.

I hope the Legislature will modify the system to end sessions through some political process. It should not be so open-ended so that sessions go on indefinitely, but it should not have fixed deadlines that stop legislating before it is finished. Legislators have read the university’s study, and some are talking about introducing bills, but I’m skeptical. The Legislature usually concentrates on current crises, rather than long-term reforms. The system doesn’t give legislators enough time to give themselves more time, much less pay themselves for uncompleted work.

But if the Legislature likes not paying people to make laws, here’s a way to not pay more of them. Let’s ask the 1.3 million registered voters to pass bills for free through an initiative process.

When I moved here from Washington state 23 years ago, the biggest political difference was the lack of an initiative process. In Washington, legislators think twice about defying the will of the people, because the people can override them. In New Mexico, the Legislature has the last word, and if the people don’t like it, tough luck.

An initiative process was considered for our first constitution in 1910, but the powers that be rejected it for questionable reasons that I’ll leave you to research for yourself. Creating an initiative process now would require a constitutional amendment, which means we’d get to vote on whether we get to vote.

So what I want for the new year is an initiative system, like they have in all our neighboring states except Texas. (We don’t want to be like Texas.)

I can tell you from experience in Washington that sometimes “We the People” do really stupid things. But sometimes the Legislature also does really stupid things. And if we vote for stupid things, at least we get what we deserve.

What are the chances that an initiative process will be proposed in this session? I predict it’s much less likely than that the Legislature will vote to pay themselves. I expect to be disappointed on both issues, but I hope my cynicism is unjustified.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Bruce McKinney

Bruce McKinney is a Silver City business owner, close observer of local government and occasional troublemaker. In his column, which appears every other Wednesday, he tries to address big questions from a local perspective. Send comments and ideas to
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