A report on Legislative Professionalism for the State of New Mexico was developed by Dr. Timothy Krebs and Dr. Michael Rocca of the University of New Mexico. The purpose of their report is, first, to compare the New Mexico state legislature’s level of professionalism with states of similar population size and demographics and, second, to present key findings related to what professionalism is, how it can be measured, and how various qualities of legislative professionalism correlate with passing quality legislation and performing other legislative functions. Today, we draw mostly from the Executive Summary and link to the full report at the end of the post.
Mea Culpa. Post-stroke, when I write, my left hand doesn’t function well, creating abundant typos or slews of ALL CAPS, that I then try to identify and fix before sending it along to Roxanne to do the final pass. On Friday I wrote the blog “The Answer, My Friend, is Blowing in the Wind,” which Roxanne edited carefully and told me to publish. I did, but not the version she had edited. Roxanne only noticed that this happened on Monday morning and went in and re-edited it so that the current version is fine. Roxanne and I are a team, but for the last year, Roxanne has carried far more responsibility than in the past. I thank her daily. But for this to continue to work, I need to figure out how to be more mindful and careful. For now, I just apologize for what was a very good post, marred by my carelessness. Thank you for your patience.
UNM Study Finds Roundhouse Lacking in Professionalism
The UNM report, “A Report on Legislative Professionalism for the State of New Mexico” defines legislative professionalism as:
“The extent to which the legislature can command the full attention of its members, providing them with adequate resources to do their jobs in a manner comparable to other full-time political actors, and setting up organizations and procedures that facilitate law making.”“Report on Legislative Professionalism for the State of New Mexico”
Why is this Important?
The UNM Report’s Executive Summary begins by framing why professional legislatures are so important:
As polarization and gridlock continues to grip national politics, Americans are increasingly looking to states to remedy the nation’s most significant challenges. The burden has fallen to the states to address complex issues such as health care, immigration, infrastructure, energy, and the environment. Perhaps the federal government’s continued inaction compared to state governments’ action, is one reason why Americans trust their state government far more than their federal government. But this wasn’t always the case. In the 1960s, state governments—particularly their legislatures—were in crisis. Few legislatures had the capacity to address the daunting issues (particularly civil rights and poverty) that were creating massive political, social, and economic unrest in our states and cities.
So, in 1971, the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures (CCSL) released a landmark assessment of our nation’s state legislatures to gain a better understanding of why our state governments were failing. The CCSL’s report—along with their 1971 book called The Sometime Governments: An Evaluation of the 50 American Legislatures—included sweeping recommendations to strengthen our state legislatures. Among other things, it sought to provide legislatures more resources of time, compensation, staff, and facilities. The result was a massive effort across the nation over the next 50 years to “professionalize” our state legislatures.
Apparently, NM missed this national reform effort, as the UNM report (link to full report at end of post) places us nearly at the bottom of all 50 states in terms of legislature professionalism.
How Do You Identify Professionalism?
Dating back to CCSL’s landmark reports, scholars of state legislatures generally agree on two factors that measure the capacity to legislate: session length and support staff. A third factor, member salary, is often used to measure professionalism as well. But this measure has more to do with the characteristics of the people who serve in the legislature than the legislature itself. Rather, we prefer to think of legislators along a spectrum of legislative careerism. For example, do state legislators work full-time or part-time at legislative tasks? And how do legislators identify themselves? Do they have careers outside the legislature?
Any guesses how NM ranks when using CCSL criteria? Near the very bottom. Based on accepted measures of professionalism and data available up to the 2015 biennium, we find that the New Mexico state legislature:
- Meets an average of 70.53 legislative days during each biennium (two years), the 3rd shortest in the nation.
- Ranks 33rd out of 50 in staff spending (or the 18th lowest in the nation).
- Maintains about 168 permanent staff—about 1.5 per legislator—which ranks 36 out of 50 states related to employing permanent staff (15th lowest).
- Has the lowest legislator salary in the nation, at zero dollars. New Mexico remains the only state in the nation whose legislators do not receive a salary.
- Ranks near the bottom of the two most commonly used aggregate measures of professionalism.
- Can be characterized as an amateur legislature with dual-career legislators.
Legislative Professionalism Matters
From UNM: “On this point, it is clear that more professionalized legislatures are more effective lawmaking bodies. Legislatures that pay higher salaries write more detailed legislation that allows them to, for example:
- more effectively control state bureaucracies, especially when the legislature is controlled by one party and the governorship controlled by another.
- have a greater capacity than less professionalized legislatures to craft highly complex legislation in response to technical policy issues (e.g. energy regulation).
- be more innovative than their less professionalized counterparts and less prone to imitate the legislative choices of neighboring or similar states.
But Professionalizing the Legislature Only Goes So Far
The above is from the Executive Summary, which teases out why higher salaries correlate with better legislation. In short, paid legislators most often no longer carry jobs they must juggle with legislative responsibilities, so they spend more time reviewing research, reports and legislation, ensuring a greater grasp of complex issues.
But professionalizing and modernizing the legislature needs to go beyond session length, legislator salary, and paid staff. A number of other barriers to effective, efficient legislative practice include:
- Late start times for committee or chamber hearings. Sessions held after 10 pm or midnight might as well be closed sessions, as most New Mexicans will not stay at the Roundhouse or even remain on Zoom late at night. And certainly New Mexicans with kids to get to school or who have jobs that start at 8 or 9 a.m. will tune out long before midnight. Plus, toward the end of session, these late night hearings can be an everyday event, wearing legislators down and depriving them of time they can be researching bills or communicating with constituents.
- Governor’s “call” during short (30-day) sessions. The requirement that only the Governor’s agenda can be considered during a short session severely limits the authority of the legislature, effectively limiting legislators to introducing bills only during 60-day sessions;
- The filibuster is a tool used by the minority party to slow down the process and limit what can get done. On the last day of the 2022 session, Republican Sen. Bill Sharer spoke for three hours about baseball and a very inaccurate lesson in NM history, none of which was related to anything on the legislative table. But what was on the table was important election reform legislation that had passed the House and two Senate committees, so this was the last hurdle — except that Sen. Sharer had every intention of talking until the clock ran out and the session ended with election reform dying for lack of time. In truth, there had been plenty of time to conduct a 3-hour hearing and vote to pass important election reform legislation.
- Conflict of interest. Legislators who must work may have to vote on legislation that influences the industry in which they work. This occurred throughout the effort to pass legalized cannabis, as both Speaker Egolf and Sen. Candelaria were attorneys for the cannabis industry. It isn’t just here that we find conflicts of interest, but also as a result of at least two legislators being in relationships with lobbyists. It is unrealistic to expect a legislator not to discuss bills with their partner and equally unrealistic to expect the lobbyist partner not to offer input. The only way to prevent undue lobbyist influence is to require legislators to reveal partner lobbyist or industry ties and then to formulate rules that prevent legislators from voting on bills in which they or their partners have vested interest.
The UNM study offers a series of recommendations:
- Staffing: Increase the number of permanent legislative staff, especially staff connected to individual legislators as opposed to staff that might work for interim committees such as the Legislative Finance Committee or the other permanent, year-round policy committees. Most legislators in NM do not have dedicated staff; they only have access to staff during the legislative session and/or when their work outside the session puts them in contact with institutional staff members. Additional staff support is the best way to increase legislative capacity. Among other benefits, increasing professional staff and broadening their distribution in the legislature will mean greater ability for the legislature to check executive agencies and governmental programs, and for individual legislators to build expertise on policy and to conduct constituency service vital to their constituencies.
- Salary: Work to provide a salary to legislators not because of its effects on the legislature, and more because it is the fair thing to do. Legislative salary as an indicator of professionalism is linked to a number of important phenomena such as who runs, time spent on the job, legislative productivity and non-voting, district legislation, good government reforms, economic development, etc., but the overall effect of salary is probably not as important as staffing. The question here of course will be where that salary is set.
- Days in Session: Days in session should be increased to enhance legislative capacity, especially in bargaining with the executive. Increasing session lengths will allow the legislature to become more involved in making policy, in shaping the budget, and running the government itself. As a result, the legislature will become a constant presence that cannot be ignored by the executive or anyone else
While this three recommendations represents an excellent start in reforming the NM legislature, the UNM report makes no mention of the reforms identified above related to late night start times for hearings; Governor’s call during short session; the filibuster; and conflict of interest. While it is unlikely that the team of House Reps. working on this legislation for 2023 will attempt to fix all of the above in one session, hopefully, they will attempt to address the three recommendations directly above, as the research suggests those being the most impactful.
You can find out the House Representatives’ plan tomorrow, Weds, July 27th from 6-7:30, as two of those legislators will be on our Zoominar panel, with other legislators joining as attendees. See info and link to register below.
Zoominar: Modernizing Our Legislature: Paid Staff, Longer Sessions, Paid Legislators, July 27, 6-7:30 p.m.
Retake feels legislative reform could be the most important bill in 2023, as all big idea bills like public banking, public power, and Health Security would fare better with a legislature that operated more sanely, a legislature:
- where hearings don’t extend into the early morning hours day after day;
- where longer sessions make due deliberation possible;
- where legislators vote on crucial legislation with adequate time to review bills;
- where legislators operating with dedicated staff can more easily engage constituents or receive their input;
- where legislators don’t rely on bill sponsors or lobbyists to clarify legislation because they have dedicated, trusted staff who research the efficacy of proposed legislation.
We will be joined by two of the Reps involved in the work to reform our legislature, Representatives Angelica Rubio (Las Cruces) and Kristina Ortez (Taos), in addition to activist Ricann Bock of Indivisible Santa Fe, and Cara Lynch, co-founder of Legislative Momentum.
We will hear how 10 legislators have worked collaboratively to develop a modernization plan. Our panelists will explain why this reform is needed, what modernization involves, and how differently the legislature could function. Please join the conversation and learn how you can help pass legislation in 2023 that will help our legislature become more efficient, more effective, and more equitable. Register here. You must register to attend.
In Solidarity & Hope,
Paul & Roxanne
The link below includes both the Executive Summary and the full report.