Retirees and public employees have a leg up in winning seats
THE WEEKEND COLUMN
Myths and legends are part of life at the state Capitol.
Perhaps the tallest tale told each day is that New Mexico’s citizen Legislature is a model of diversity, a striking example of ordinary people getting the extraordinary opportunity to make a difference.
In truth, citizen Legislature is another version of bittersweet victory — an oxymoron of New Mexico politics.
State Rep. Antonio Maestas, right, is one of the few who challenges the conventional and inaccurate story that the citizen Legislature gives most everybody a crack at serving.
Maestas, D-Albuquerque, says the opposite is true. He is right.
Most New Mexicans cannot run for the Legislature, even those brimming with good ideas and intentions.
Money pressures and an inability to get off work for 30- or 60-day sessions each year — plus dozens of other days for committee hearings — make the New Mexico Legislature a closed society.
State lawmakers receive a daily expense allowance when on official business. They even qualify for pensions after five years of service. But they are not paid a salary.
The result is a 112-member Legislature that is limited to a few contenders in a state of 2 million people.
Skim the first few names of those in the state House of Representatives and you get the picture: Eliseo Alcon, disabled veteran. Thomas Anderson, right, retired naval officer. Phillip Archuleta, retired. Alonzo Baldonado, real estate salesman. Paul Bandy, rancher. Don Bratton, retired engineer.
Walk down any row in the House of Representatives or the Senate and you will find retirees and public employees. Legislators who are collecting government paychecks include teachers, public school administrators, a firefighter and a community college president.
How can a teacher be allowed to leave his classroom for 60 days in the middle of a semester? Because teacher/legislators are built-in lobbyists for school districts.
Just last week, Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, lost a bill to limit the salaries of school superintendents to $110,000 a year. Two of his fellow citizen legislators, both Republicans, helped ice his plan. One is a school administrator and the other serves on a school board.
People who have exited the job market or those with a public employer that allows them plenty of time off have a tremendous advantage in winning legislative seats. Others who might be superior candidates cannot take time away from their businesses. More still work in the private sector for bosses who cannot spare them for months of duty in Santa Fe.
There is another fact of life about legislative participation.
Even many of the retirees used to be on the public payroll. One legislator was a teacher and a principal. Another was a Bernalillo County sheriff's deputy. A third was an Albuquerque police officer.
Maestas, 44, a lawyer in private practice, is among those without a built-in advantage to win a legislative seat. But attorneys also are unusually well-represented in the Legislature. There are 14 of them.
If we paid legislators a modest salary we would see far more talent competing for those 112 seats at the Capitol. Instead, we have mindless braggadocio about what an Old West treasure our citizen Legislature is.
The truth is harsher. New Mexico’s Legislature is an institution that favors a few, not the many.
Diversity in the Legislature is best exemplified by the two youngest members, Sens. Jacob Candelaria, right, and Cliff Pirtle.
Candelaria, 26, is a Democrat from Albuquerque, a working-class kid who applied to one university — Princeton — and got in.
After graduating, Candelaria worked as a policy analyst for the late speaker of the House, Ben Lujan. Candelaria ran for the Senate last year while serving as executive director of an organization that advocated for the civil rights of gays and lesbians.
Pirtle, 27, has nothing but age in common with Candelaria. Pirtle is a Republican, a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association and a farmer who did not go to college. He jumped into politics with an unsuccessful race for Congress. Then Pirtle made a splash in 2012 by unseating Democrat Tim Jennings, who for 33 years represented Roswell in the Senate.
Ask Pirtle a question and he will request that you email him instead so he can contemplate his response.
Candelaria will talk about everything but the flagpole on the Capitol grounds. More than 1,300 bills were introduced this session and he has read each one.
Candelaria gets up at 5:30 a.m. to drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. Already he has found a role by introducing three bills for high-tech projects or improvements that older senators were not so attuned to.
He says every day at the Legislature is a learning adventure. The kid is onto something. We need more like him.