What is a Citizen Legislature?

Here in New Mexico, we have what is called a “citizen legislature”, meaning that our state lawmakers do not receive a salary and typically have full-time occupations outside of their legislative duties. This system was implemented over 100 years ago when New Mexico became a state in 1912. Our state senators and representatives do, however, receive a per diem of approximately $184 daily plus 58 cents per mile for travel costs (Santa Fe New Mexican). Along with New Mexico, Idaho, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, New Hampshire and Wyoming also have citizen legislatures, although New Mexico is the only unsalaried state.

Arguments for Citizen Legislature

One of the biggest arguments for citizen legislature is that it is comprised “of the people for the people” and that a citizen legislature without a salary protects the integrity of our system by not making it for full time politicians. Some favor this legislature because they feel that it is more representative of everyday, working citizens from all walks of life rather that comprised solely of full-time politicians. Because a citizen legislature is made up of elected volunteers, many believe that they are truly interested in serving their state for the right reasons, since compensation is so low. People may feel that those who fill the seats genuinely want to see a difference and have time to put forth that effort. Because many legislators have full-time occupations outside of lawmaking, there is often a diversity of expertise in a variety of fields which can be helpful when crafting laws.

Arguments Against Citizen Legislature

Conversely, others are skeptical of the citizen legislature. It has been argued by Representative Antonio Maestas, when he said, “We romanticize about the citizen legislature, but in reality, it’s not because so few people can afford to serve” (Santa Fe New Mexican). Many argue that the citizen legislature is outdated and not truly representative of the people because only a small group of citizens have the ability to attend the session each year. The average, working person is not able to attend a 30-60 day session without missing work and losing pay. Most occupations will not allow time off to be a legislator, so not everyone is able to run for election. For this reason, it has been argued that seats in our legislature are not truly available to everyone and are often comprised heavily of business owners, lawyers, retirees or those who are independently wealthy. Considering New Mexico is the only state without a base salary and it ranks near last in most categories, could this policy be factor in the problems we see?

 We’d love to hear your thoughts on either side. Let us know what you think. 


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