SANTA FE, New Mexico — New Mexico lawmakers were paid a combined $2.3 million last year for expenses, travel and other costs in what marked a 25 percent increase over the previous comparable legislative session.
New Mexico is the only state in the nation where lawmakers receive no salary for their work, but taxpayers foot the bill for their mileage, meals and travel and other work expenses.
State records obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request show that lawmakers were paid much more in 2015 than they were in 2013, the most comparable year with a 60-day legislative session.
Lawmakers were paid a combined $1.8 million in 2013, meaning last year's compensation cost taxpayers an additional $500,000.
Legislators on average earned more than $20,000 last year, with Sen. Lee Cotter, R-Las Cruces, receiving more than any other lawmaker at $43,604 last year.
House and Senate members collect a daily expense payment — a "per diem" set at $163 — that covers work during legislative sessions that last 30 and 60 days in alternating years and committee meetings year-round. They also can receive compensation for driving mileage, out-of-state legislative conferences and are eligible for retirement benefits.
Cotter, a real estate investor, served as a member and adviser to nine year-round legislative committees during 2015 and said that his expenses and compensation reflect his intense dedication and enthusiasm for the job. He said that costs for traveling between Las Cruces and the capitol in Santa Fe roughly doubled his compensation.
Three other lawmakers received more than $35,000. They were Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa ($36,793); Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola ($36,431); and Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque ($35,662).
Cisneros said the compensation allows him to stay engaged in the state budget process and specialty issues as an advocate for his constituents.
"It sets up the stage for what is going to occur in the legislative session, and you certainly want to have them (constituents) participate as opposed to being excluded," said Cisnerso. "This is not pocket money. This isn't cash we get for personal use."
Compensation is typically higher in odd-numbered years when the Legislature meets for at least 60 days. In 2013, compensation averaged a little more than $16,000 per lawmaker and $27,463 at the most.
A one-day special legislative session in 2015 added to expenses does not account for the sizeable compensation increase.
New Mexico may be the nation's only unsalaried legislature, but it is not at the bottom nationally for compensation. Lawmakers in New Hampshire receive an annual salary of $100, but get no per diem when they meet. On the flip side, California legislators earn more than $90,000 a year, plus daily expenses.
New Mexico lawmakers are contemplating whether to add salaries under a proposed constitutional amendment submitted by Rep. Terry McMillan, R-Las Cruces, a surgeon who collected $11,359 in compensation for his legislative work last year.
The plan would tie lawmakers' salaries to the median household incomes in New Mexico of about $41,000, costing taxpayers an additional $4.6 million a year.
Proponents say salaries would broaden the pool of candidates who can afford to serve.
Approval looks unlikely because legislative salaries are not part of a House budget appropriations bill approved Saturday and were not included in budget recommendations from Republican Gov. Susana Martinez or the Legislature.