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Women legislators fight for salaries


Women make up nearly 44 percent of New Mexico’s Legislature — one of the largest representations of any state in the country. They make up the majority in the House of Representatives.

Now, as the 2024 legislative session gets underway, a small group of those lawmakers is working to modernize a system that, in important ways, hasn’t been updated since its establishment in 1912. Most significantly: New Mexico is the only state whose legislators don’t draw a salary. (New Hampshire, a near tie in this regard, pays lawmakers $100 a year.)

The five women, all Democrats, are pushing the legislature to lengthen its sessions, bring on more paid staff and provide lawmakers with a base paycheck. All they receive is a daily allowance of $191 when attending the session and $231 for interim committee meetings. 

The women argue that when legislators aren’t salaried, they lack the capacity to govern effectively. In order to fully serve their constituents, they say they need to devote time throughout the year to committee meetings, planning sessions and calls and emails. 

Those expectations are hard to meet when one also has a full-time job, parenting responsibilities and financial obligations.

The following legislators are proposing a joint resolution for a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to approve the creation of an independent commission to set salaries for legislators. Last year, the same proposal passed a vote in the House but died in a committee in the Senate.

Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque. Attorney.
Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque. Attorney.

Sen. Katy Duhigg, Albuquerque

Everything fell into place when Katy Duhigg decided to run for office in 2020. A lawsuit she filed years earlier had just been settled, allowing her to walk away with a payout and quit her job with the city of Albuquerque. Her brother has a condo in Santa Fe where she could stay during the legislative session. And her son’s father was able to assume childcare responsibilities while she went to the Roundhouse. 

“I’m a single mom, and I work full time,” said 44-year-old Duhigg, who shares custody of her son, age 10. “Balancing being a mom, working full time and being a legislator — inevitably one of those things ends up suffering at any given time.”

Looking around at her colleagues, Duhigg sees a lot more single mothers than single fathers, and she thinks that the women’s appreciation of what it takes to juggle work and family has led to the push for modernization. But some of her colleagues, she said, are happy with the status quo. 

“They are these very rich men for whom the current system works very well,” she said. “I think there’s a profound lack of understanding of how it works for everyone who is not a super rich dude.”

Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque. Retired middle school teacher.
Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque. Retired middle school teacher.

Rep. Joy Garratt, Bernalillo County.

Five Zoom meetings, one hearing and a regularly scheduled meeting to discuss modernization: That’s what Joy Garratt’s calendar looked like on a recent week. And it was only Wednesday. 

“Last week, I was at two committee meetings, a broadband summit, the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce and a legislative update on Workforce Funding for non-credit classes,” the 71-year-old lawmaker said. 

“To really understand and take the time — to not just be in a session or a committee, but to do the work that it takes to actually be well informed — it’s a professional situation. It deserves to be compensated accordingly.”

Garratt was elected when she was still a teacher; she could only afford to run because the union contract allowed her to take professional leave for the sessions as well as 10 additional days. She retired in the summer of 2020 after spending a year on legislative work and fielding calls from constituents during her lunch hour. 

Since retiring she has increased the number of committees she serves on and is able to devote more time to the job. 

“There’s a professional executive branch, the judicial branch is professional, and the legislative branch are volunteers,” she explains. “We have some fabulous paid staff, but when it comes to determining state policies and laws, that is the job of the elected legislators. It’s not the job of the paid support staff.” 

Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo. Retired founding executive director of Las Alamos National Laboratory Foundation.
Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo. Retired founding executive director of Las Alamos National Laboratory Foundation.

Rep. Susan Herrera, Embudo.

After Susan Herrera retired from her position at the LANL Foundation, she took a year to have fun. But she quickly got bored and decided to cross an item off her bucket list — running for office. 

“I think I could have won 10 years earlier,” said Herrera, who is 76. “I thought about it but I was a single mom, I had a kid that was going to college, I needed to get him through college without debt.”

Today, the job takes most of her time. “Family time, I have five grandchildren — so how often do I see them?…I hardly ever see my friends and I’m so embarrassed because when I finally see them, I’m asking them to campaign for me!” she said. “I love gardening and reading books, I love cooking and trying new recipes. I love sewing. All those things have just kind of gone by the wayside”

Now that she’s in office she sees a need to strengthen the roles of New Mexico’s House and Senate. In addition to salaries, she is pushing for legislators to have their own paid staffers and for the sessions to be longer. Currently, sessions are 60 days in odd-numbered years and 30 days in even-numbered years.

“Everybody was farming when we built this Constitution so it was very easy — and it still is easy — for farmers to come up here for two months or a month in January and go to the legislature,” Herrera said. “It doesn’t work for a single mom with two kids.” 

Rep. Kristina Ortez, D-Taos. Executive director, Taos Land Trust.
Rep. Kristina Ortez, D-Taos. Executive director, Taos Land Trust.

Rep. Kristina Ortez, Taos.

When Kristina Ortez looks around the legislature, she doesn’t see a lot of lawmakers like herself. She wants that to change.

“I want a Latina or Indigenous woman who has a family, who has a good job, and who lives among the community to be the next legislator from my district,” the 50-year-old lawmaker said. “I want that person not to be like, ‘I cannot possibly do that work, because I need to raise a family and pay my mortgage.’”

Ortez, who shares custody of two daughters, ages 9 and 12, said the only way she’s able to be a legislator is because of the support of family. Her 76-year-old mother comes from California to New Mexico every year to help out while Ortez goes to Santa Fe. 

During the rest of the year, a typical day starts at 5 a.m. and involves juggling a full-time job, meetings with constituents and child care. “I would say at least half of (my vacation time) is spent on legislative matters,” Ortez said. “I think you give up time. You’re always on.”

Rep. Angelia Rubio, D-Las Cruces. State director, Vote Run Lead.
Rep. Angelia Rubio, D-Las Cruces. State director, Vote Run Lead.

Rep. Angelica Rubio, Las Cruces.

When a seat opened up in District 35 back in 2016, Angelica Rubio fielded a flurry of calls from friends and community leaders, urging her to run. For years, she had helped various candidates win office. She worked to raise the minimum wage in Las Cruces, and was active in public service.  

“They say it takes seven times for a woman to be asked to run before they say yes. I always say it took me at least 30 times,” said Rubio, 44. “I always say that I’m serving reluctantly, but it’s the community of people that I get to represent that really keeps me going.”

The $191 per diem rate during the session isn’t enough to cover the high cost of housing and meals in Santa Fe, so Rubio typically shares a place with other legislators; this year, she will be sharing with Rep. Kristina Ortez of Taos. 

After years of hearing others say they cannot afford to serve, Rubio has made lawmaker compensation one of her main issues.  

“The legislature right now is made up of a lot of people who can afford to not only serve, but also to be up there in Santa Fe at the State Capitol for long periods of time,” she notes. “Your typical New Mexican wouldn’t be able to do that. It’s typical New Mexicans who we actually need to hear from in order to pass public policy that is going to make their lives better.” 

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative and public service journalism in the interest of the people of New Mexico.