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Legislative aides a good first step

Commentary:

If you need assistance with your federal benefits, you can speak with staff members for U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan and U.S. Rep. Gabriel Vasquez at their Las Cruces district offices.

If you have issues with the city or county that need to be resolved, you can reach your representative on the City Council and County Commission at their offices. Constituent services are a vital part of the job for most elected officials.

If, however, your problems are with the state, you can try reaching your state senator and representative, but they don’t have an office and there’s a good chance they’ll be busy with their real job - the one that pays the bills.

Constituent services are important for not only helping residents in the district navigate through the bureaucracy, but also for hearing from them and staying connected with them. But they aren’t free, and that’s a problem in our unpaid Legislature.

There is good news. This year the Legislature is finally taking baby steps towards professionalism. Lawmakers have approved a $6 million appropriation to hire more than 100 year-round legislative aides.

When fully implemented, each legislator will be able to hire their own aide to assist with scheduling, research, outreach and other constituent services. There will also be funding to create new district offices.

Incumbents running unopposed in the general election - and there are far too many of them - can start hiring in September.

The initial $6 million won’t be enough to fully implement the plan. That will cost up to $16 million. But let’s keep that in perspective. The Legislature is responsible for a state budget of more than $10.2 billion. It makes no sense to try to save pennies in the management of billions of dollars.

This is a logical first step in what must be a larger effort to modernize the state Legislature, which still has a law on the books requiring each bill to be read aloud three times before a vote can be taken. Instead of changing the law years ago, they all just agree to break it.

That’s far from the most egregious example of our archaic legislative system. We have the only unpaid Legislature in the nation. That has made it a job most New Mexicans can’t afford to take.

All 112 seats in the New Mexico Legislature are up for re-election this year, but most of those races were decided on filing day. Of the 42 races in the Senate, only 15 will be determined by the vote on election day. In the House, voters won’t have a choice in 47 of the 70 districts.

That’s getting dangerously close to something other than a two-party democracy. And all those uncontested races will undoubtedly breed frustration and disinterest among the thousands of voiceless voters.

Funding legislative aides will take some of the burden off lawmakers, allow them to better serve their constituents and, hopefully, give them access to independent research and information on bills that does not come from the lobbyists.

It’s a great start, but it’s only a start. We need a professional, fully paid Legislature. And, they need to meet for longer than 30-day and 60-day sessions.

Heck, they might even consider changing the law requiring three readings of every bill. But I’m probably the only one bothered by that.

Walter Rubel's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU. Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com