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Earlier this year, a Republican state lawmaker in New Mexico proposed a constitutional amendment that would give his colleagues (and himself) something most workers take for granted: a paycheck. Since 1912, when New Mexico entered the union as a sparsely populated frontier settlement, its state legislators have worked without a salary, although lawmakers receive a per diem that amounts to approximately $7,000 for up to two months of work per year. Today, it’s the only state with an unsalaried legislature. In an op-ed published in January, the amendment’s sponsor, Terry McMillan, argued that a volunteer legislature has its limits. We tend to prefer a professional fire department to a squad of volunteers, he said — why don’t we feel the same about the people in our government?
The amendment, which would have raised New Mexico legislators’ salaries to match the state’s median household income, around $45,000, died quietly when the session ended in February. But arguments like McMillan’s raise a tricky question for American taxpayers: How much are our lawmakers really worth?
“The question of salaries has haunted American legislatures since the 1640s,” said Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri and an expert on state legislatures. “It has been a chronic issue where lawmakers generally ask for more pay and the public is almost always resistant.”
When they ask for more money, lawmakers like McMillan try to make the case to voters that they deserve a pay raise because of the time and knowledge required to do their jobs well. It’s a hard sell, because higher–compensated legislatures such as those in Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York, where lawmakers are paid well above the state’s median income, routinely face accusations of incompetence or corruption. According to Squire and other political scientists, higher pay isn’t a magic bullet for better governance — but there’s evidence that when it comes to state legislatures, we get what we pay for.