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Friday, November 20, 2009

Food for Thought from Stephen Jones: A Professional Legislature

This is a post by contributing writer, Stephen Jones, who is a progressive political activist and a resident of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

I admit when I first arrived in New Mexico the romantic notion of a “Citizen Legislature” seemed quite attractive to me, particularly having spent so much time over the years facing off against well-oiled and high rolling lobbyists in the other kind of legislatures over much needed reform legislation that was good for the communities I was advocating change for, but not necessarily for the special interests the lobbyists were paid by.

Then reality set in. While tuning in and out of the recent session of the New Mexico legislature it occurred to me that a “citizen legislature” is not quite up to its billing. Actually, at points along the way, it seemed a bit like a Broadway musical production put on by the local high school. The experience has convinced me that I ought to rethink the whole “citizen legislature” thing. I expect that at some point New Mexico will need to pull itself out of its 19th Century Territorial past and pay the legislators who gather in Santa Fe like other states do.

Before denouncing me for heresy, let us just begin by considering that, if we don’t adopt a professional legisature, the squishy ethics of that body alone will keep New Mexico’s State Auditors fairly busy for decades to come.

Here’s another thing to consider. New Mexico is the fifth largest state in the nation. Other states with citizen legislatures can fit into one of New Mexico’s counties. Even on horseback, state representatives from Vermont are less than a day’s travel to Montpelier, where the State Capitol is located. By automobile, the entire legislative assembly can make the trip in less than two hours. Most of them just drive back home after the Speaker pounds the gavel for the evening.

In New Mexico legislators must travel long distances to the capital, then house and feed themselves in Santa Fe, one of the nations’ less than economical locations, while the Legislature is in session. Lobbyists, and various and sundry “associations” are more than happy to help out with the food and housing problem. Even when the ethically questionable closeness to these groups and individuals isn't an issue, the coziness that members of the Executive Branch offer our intrepid travelers from the hinterlands ought to raise an eyebrow or two. This situation alone can’t help but lead to legislation by way of a wink and a nod. Couple this with the fact that the citizen legislators themselves have business and professional interests that all too often coincide with pending bills in the capital.

At a time when a State Budget is reeling, it may seem odd to raise the idea of paying our legislators and allotting them funds for a basic staff. I have to admit, this is an issue; however on the other side of this equation is the fact that the folks back home actually do get something for their dollars. For one thing they get a full service representative with actual office hours and a staff to answer phone calls when somebody needs them. They also get a paid advocate for the community back in Santa Fe.

Beyond local advocacy a full time professional legislature would be a counterweight to the Governor’s office and to the other constitutional state office holders. This would, by its nature, create both the oversight and the creative and competitive tension to develop better laws and ensure the level of deliberation needed to assess and pass those laws, rather than having such a heavy reliance on the Executive Branch for drafting and proposing bills into the legislature.

Finally, a full time, professional legislature would be, by its nature, both in competition with the executive offices and a source for office holders to run for those offices that would already be familiar with the workings of the State structure and processes.

For all of these reasons, ethics chief among them, I believe it is time for New Mexico to enter the 21st Century, abandon its cherished “citizen legislature” and follow the overwhelming majority of states in implementing a full time, professional legislature.

Contributing writer Stephen Jones has a background in history, libraries and records management. He has been involved in many civil and human rights campaigns. He has previously lived and worked in Wisconsin and Illinois and served for three terms, in the late 1980's, as State Chair of the Independent Voters of Illinois, a leading progressive non-partisan political and legislative action community organization in that state. He has been a community organizer and he has been involved in numerous issue and political campaigns.

To read more posts by Stephen Jones, visit our archive.

November 20, 2009 at 09:10 AM in By Stephen Jones, Contributing Writer, NM Legislature 2009 | Permalink

Comments

You make total sense. Now all we have to do is get the voters to change the constitution.

Posted by: Old Dem | Nov 20, 2009 12:51:11 PM

How would we pay for it?

Posted by: William Nie | Nov 20, 2009 1:24:20 PM

I think the greater question than how do we pay for it is how much will we save by having professional Legislators with professional staff who do not have to reach out to special interest groups just to stay in office.

Posted by: Terry Riley | Nov 20, 2009 3:08:57 PM

@Terry, I don't think professionalizing the legislature will do anything to mitigate the influence of special interests.

At this point I don't see a way to eliminate the influence of special interests. If you follow the history of campaign finance laws, it's abundantly clear that interests always find a way around any law passed by the government.

I am an advocate of professionalizing the legislature as well but I don't think it would be possible to get that done in the current political climate.

Posted by: William Nie | Nov 20, 2009 3:24:22 PM

Tax the rich

Posted by: E.M. | Nov 20, 2009 3:25:12 PM