Some New Mexico lawmakers have been attending Statehouse sessions virtually, from home, instead of in person – but are still pocketing the per diem cash intended to cover travel expenses, according to a report.
"I think it’s important for the taxpayer to know that, frankly," Jim Dines, a former state lawmaker, told KRQE-TV of Albuquerque.
Republican state Sen. Craig Brandt said any lawmaker who doesn’t travel to a Statehouse session should decline that day’s travel money.
"It’s required in the Constitution to pay the legislators per diem," Brandt told the station. "It’s not required that the legislator accepts it.
"It’s a huge cost to the taxpayers," Brandt continued, "that [some lawmakers are] literally sitting at home and not being up here and still getting paid to be here."
IRS data suggests that New Mexico’s state lawmakers average about $10,000 in per-diem income for a 60-day legislative session, with the total cost to taxpayers reaching about $1.2 million, KRQE reported.
Exactly how many lawmakers were staying home was unclear because no tracking system was put in place for the temporary coronavirus-related setup, the report said.
But Democratic state Rep. Angelica Rubio noted that New Mexico is the only one of the 50 states that doesn’t pay its lawmakers a salary – so the per diem money is the only compensation they receive for their legislative duties.
Rubio told KRQE she had no reservations about keeping the cash despite working from home in Las Cruces instead of traveling to the capital of Santa Fe.
"I have older parents who were at risk, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near the petri dish that is the Roundhouse," she said, using the familiar name for New Mexico’s Statehouse.
Rubio has sponsored a bill to initiate salaries for lawmakers, the station noted, adding that her bill passed in the House and in a Senate committee but was unlikely to reach the Senate floor before the current session ends Saturday.
Use of taxpayer money by public officials in New Mexico previously came under scrutiny in February, when the Santa Fe New Mexican published details about discretionary spending by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The governor spent about $13,500 over a six-month period in 2020 on expenses such as dry cleaning, groceries and alcohol, the report said.
The same report noted that Grisham was hosting in-person staff meetings at the governor’s mansion despite advising state residents against mixed gatherings amid the pandemic.