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In rural states’ “citizen” legislatures, ordinary citizens can’t afford to serve

Savannah Maher Jan 31, 2023
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Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena with one of her children at the New Mexico Capitol. "I put my family in a compromising situation by deciding to serve in an unpaid body,” she said. Savannah Maher/Marketplace

In rural states’ “citizen” legislatures, ordinary citizens can’t afford to serve

Savannah Maher Jan 31, 2023
Heard on:
Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena with one of her children at the New Mexico Capitol. "I put my family in a compromising situation by deciding to serve in an unpaid body,” she said. Savannah Maher/Marketplace
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Santa Fe, New Mexico, is home to the country’s only circular state Capitol building, affectionately known as the Roundhouse. At the center is a 60-foot marble rotunda capped with a stained glass skylight. 

“It’s stunning, right?” said Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, a second-term Democrat from south-central New Mexico who was taking the long way back to her office after checking in on the House floor. 

On the second Monday of the legislative session, Lara Cadena had meetings scheduled with a group of students visiting from New Mexico State University and with organizers from the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to discuss a criminal justice reform proposal she’s sponsoring. 

“I’m really proud that our Capitol is so accessible,” she said after helping constituents — a group of teachers from the Four Corners region — find their way to the Senate gallery. 

Lara Cadena is at home in this building, situated 300 miles from Mesilla, the town she grew up in and now represents. But she also stands out. For one thing, she’s only 40. Many of her colleagues are retirees. She’s got tattoos, two school-age kids at home and a 9-to-5 job that make her presence in the Capitol unique. 

“When I heard this seat was going to become available, I knew that it was going to mean a lot to have a Chicana, a working mom, in a seat of power like this,” Lara Cadena said. 

But being elected to that seat in 2018 meant stepping away from paid work during her first 60-day legislative session. New Mexico is home to the only volunteer state legislature in the country. Lawmakers do not receive a base salary, and Lara Cadena said their $165 per diem doesn’t cover the costs of traveling to Santa Fe or living in the expensive capital city during the session.

“That first year, I did everything I could to live basic here. I went to every lobbyist-sponsored dinner, every event where I could pick up some cheese and crackers,” she said, adding that she sent home as much of her per diem as possible to put toward household bills. “I put basic expenses on credit cards to make it work.” 

Now, Lara Cadena has what she calls a “boujee job” with a national nonprofit that offers more flexibility. She drops down to half time during the session, fitting in paid work in the early mornings, evenings and on weekends. Still, balancing her day job with legislating — plus parenting from afar — is an emotional and financial drain. 

“Yeah, I put my family in a compromising situation by deciding to serve in an unpaid body,” she said. That’s something most working New Mexicans can’t afford to do. 

“There, believe it or not, are several members of the legislature who have never had a job,” Lara Cadena said, and many more who left the workforce decades ago. “What does that mean when we’re considering workers’ rights or the minimum wage?” 

The uphill battle of professionalizing state legislatures

Forty-five U.S. state legislatures gaveled into session in January. Whether and how much lawmakers serving in them are compensated varies tremendously. If you live in California, Illinois or Massachusetts, you’re represented by a professional legislature — meaning lawmakers are working on your behalf year-round and getting paid a living wage to do it. New York’s state lawmakers pull down the highest salary at $142,000 a year. 

In some more rural and less populous states, you’ll find what are known as citizen legislatures that meet for just a few weeks of the year, where lawmaker salaries can fall well below the federal poverty line. Arizona’s state legislators make an annual base salary of around $24,000. In New Hampshire, lawmakers are paid just $100 a year for their service. 

Many of those “citizen” lawmakers are putting in 40 hours a week or more regardless of their salaries, according to Josalyn Williams, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“All people working in legislatures are citizens of their states, and also all are working at a professional level,” Williams said. Differences in lawmaker pay “reflect the culture, values and needs of the state itself.” 

Those differences are often enshrined in state constitutions, Williams said — making them difficult to change. 

In New Mexico, some lawmakers have put forward a constitutional amendment that — if approved by the legislature and later by New Mexican voters — would task a citizen’s commission with determining legislator salaries. 

The New Mexico State Capitol Building is seen against clouds in a blue sky.
The New Mexico State Capitol building, also called the Roundhouse, is home to the country’s only volunteer state legislature. (Davel5957/Getty Images)

Michael Rocca, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, co-authored research finding that a base salary, along with longer sessions and paid staff for lawmakers, could increase diversity and productivity in the legislature. But efforts to professionalize the Roundhouse and other citizen legislatures face an uphill battle. 

“It has become a framing problem,” Rocca said. “Politicians have not been able to make this case from their own offices because it seems self-serving.” 

Trust in government is approaching historic lows, according to the Pew Research Center. Why would we want to provide more resources to politicians we perceive as elitist, out of touch or even corrupt? 

But Rocca said that’s a self-fulfilling cycle, as volunteer and low-paid legislatures attract the kind of candidates who can make financial sacrifices. 

“What that means is it’s usually a wealthier individual, and it’s typically those who are retired,” Rocca said. “And as you might imagine, that introduces all sorts of biases into the system.”

The high costs of serving  

A few hundred miles north, in Wyoming, Republican state Rep. Dan Zwonitzer has watched that bias play out. He and his colleagues make a small base salary; last year, his shook out to about $22,000. Zwonitzer said retirees, farmers, ranchers and the independently wealthy are overrepresented in the legislature, while the working class and even 9-to-5 professionals are largely locked out. 

“If you have kids in K-12, it’s basically impossible,” the 43-year-old father of two said. Unlike most of his colleagues in the vast, rural state, he is based in the capital city, Cheyenne, and does not need to travel or relocate during the session. At times during his 19 years of service, Zwonitzer has had to forgo a salary and health insurance while serving. 

“Nobody expects to make money [as a state lawmaker], but you can’t afford to go destitute legislating,” Zwonitzer said.

And as the legislative workload increased over the years, “many of my colleagues have had to say, ‘It’s just not worth what it costs to serve,’” he said.  

That leaves a legislature that skews older, wealthier and more conservative than the state it represents. A local advocacy group has pointed out there are frequently more bolo ties than women on the Capitol floor. High turnover among members makes Wyoming’s legislature — which meets for just 40 days during odd-numbered years and 20 days during even-numbered years — less productive and efficient, Zwonitzer said. 

“It’s a spiral going in the wrong direction that we need to figure out how to turn around,” he said, but a bill that would have increased legislator pay for the first time since 2005 died in committee before the start of this year’s session. Wyoming lawmakers are instead considering a measure that would increase per diem payments and offer a health insurance option. 

In New Mexico, Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena considers the effort to put legislator pay on the ballot important but potentially a double-edged sword. A citizen’s commission might institute a living wage for lawmakers or a very low salary similar to those offered in neighboring states like Arizona, Utah and Texas. 

“Me and my kids can’t survive, for example, on $20,000 a year,” she said. “So I’d be in this hard, likely impossible, spot where I’d be expected to quit my job and work as a legislator full time without actually making enough to support myself and my family. So, there is some risk to this.” 

Meanwhile, the calculus for Lara Cadena is shifting quickly as the political environment in New Mexico grows more hostile and even violent. Several of her colleagues in Albuquerque recently had their homes shot up in a scheme allegedly orchestrated by a failed legislative candidate.

“Certainly in the news of those shootings, I have these important bills I’m committed to for 60 days, and at the end of the session, I myself will be evaluating” whether the cost of serving her community has started to outweigh the benefits. 

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