The state of New Mexico has the 3rd oldest state legislature in the entire country with the average age being 62. That’s according to December 2015 data from the National Conference of State Legislatures (http://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/who-we-elect.aspx).
So why don’t younger people in the state seek a seat in state legislature? One major reason may be there is no paid salary.
Angelica Rubio is under 40. She’s the Democratic candidate running for a seat representing the 35th District of the New Mexico House of Representatives. Rubio acknowledges that it is a sacrifice financially to spend the time campaigning for an office that will not pay her a salary.
“I also have the same issues that many people under 40 have. I have student debt; wages are still an issue, I don’t have any money by any means, but I’ve learned to adapt. Much like young people my age, we just become sort of like minimalists,” says Rubio.
Rubio says that it’s not just young people who face the financial roadblock to campaigning and serving in an elected office, but working people in general who may have the talent to represent their community can’t due to fact that they just can’t put their jobs on hold to take on a another job that requires a lot of time with no pay.
“If it’s difficult for me, I can’t imagine how it must be for typical people who live in this community who just need to make ends meet, but could potentially have really great ideas at the policy level,” says Rubio.
Republican State Representative Dr. Terry McMillan says that providing a salary will allow younger, working people to seek elected state office. McMillan who serves in the 37th district in the New Mexico House of Representatives backed legislation to pay state lawmakers. He says the people who serve in the state legislature are usually retired or can afford to take the time to needed to serve in the Santa Fe Roundhouse.
“We like having old hands in the legislature, we do believe that age brings some degree of wisdom, but at the same time I do think there should be a good opportunity for young working people to participate in the process and only providing a modest salary will allow for that,” says McMillan.
McMillan says when you pay a salary for legislators you expect more from people. For example, he says legislators come from different careers with pay, may bias their vote. He also says that a “modest salary” can help eliminate some conflicts of interest that may exist along with increasing performance of lawmakers using stronger ethics.
“Now there is something romantic about what we call a New Mexican citizens legislature, but I would say the days of that have passed and the issues that we grapple with include a $6-to-7 billion budget every year are better served by making your legislature more professional one and one without so much conflict of interest,” says McMillan.
With the New Mexico state facing a major budget crunch due to falling oil and gas prices, many people around the state will want to make sure their representatives are hearing their voices as tough decisions may be on the horizon.
Angelica Rubio says that the current system favors lobbyists in the state and not the voters who may not have as many opportunities to connect with their elected officials to get their concerns heard.
“I don’t think it’s the fault of the legislature themselves. I think it’s just the way that our system is built. Legislators aren’t paid. We have issues of course with of course money in politics and the issue of lobbyists in the state, and I think that puts a disservice to the service that we should be providing directly to the constituents,” says Rubio.
New Mexico is not the only state with a shortage of young people elected to serve in the state legislature. According to a December 2015 Pew Charitable Trusts survey, only five percent of state legislators across the country are part of the millennial generation who the survey also says is 31 percent of the voting-age population (http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2015/12/23/in-state-legislatures-millennials-are-often-left-out).
With those numbers in mind, will New Mexico lawmakers and other state legislators across the country truly understand current issues that face millennial voters who are now the largest living generation? Perhaps, that may be just one more reason why we have elections.