State legislators Phillip Archuleta of Las Cruces and Ernest Chavez of Albuquerque both missed the entire 30-day session of the New Mexico Legislature that wrapped up Feb. 20 due to illness. But that didn't stop them from collecting the same expense payments they would have if they had traveled to Santa Fe.
Both legislators received the per diem payments of $159 a day, even though they had no need for lodging or food, according to expense records reported on by Patrick Malone of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Even more outrageous, they both collected mileage payments of 56 cents a mile for the round trip to Santa Fe, even though neither actually made the trip.
Speaker of the House Ken Martinez defended the payments, noting that Archuleta and Chavez had introduced legislation and capital outlay projects before the session began and were "closely monitoring their bills."
In fact, there wasn't much to monitor. The only legislation sponsored by either man that passed was a memorial honoring Hispanic and women farmers. It passed 70-0, with even those not in attendance being shown as voting in favor. Which is understandable; who is opposed to Hispanic and women farmers?
Nothing else sponsored by either legislator came close to passing, and their absence left the House deadlocked for more than two weeks on the budget bill.
We appreciate that both members would have been there if they could. Archuleta is still recovering from a difficult hip surgery, and Chavez was reportedly sidelined by a spider bite. We wish a speedy recovery to both men.
But payments to them for expenses not incurred are simply not justified.
New Mexico's system of compensating legislators has always favored those who live closest to Santa Fe. All lawmakers get a per diem of $159 a day, whether they live next to the Roundhouse or travel to Santa Fe from Las Cruces and other communities that are hundreds of miles away.
Unlike traditional expense reports where employees are expected to keep receipts and account for every penny, every member of the Legislature gets the same $159 a day. By tradition, lawmakers take off the first Friday of the session and often do no work that weekend. But they still get paid as if they had.
Legislators in New Mexico are proud of the fact that ours is a "citizen legislature," the only unpaid legislative body in the nation. But at some point, the yearly payments go beyond a reimbursement of expenses and become something more akin to a salary.
That becomes obvious when legislators get expense payments even in years when they have no expenses.