- Associated Press - Thursday, February 27, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico legislators averaged a little more than $16,000 in compensation last year although they received no annual salary.

House and Senate members collect a daily expense payment, called a per diem, when the Legislature is in session and while attending committee meetings or out-of-state legislative conferences during the rest of the year.

Four state senators were the highest compensated members of the Legislature last year, according to information from the Department of Finance and Administration obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request.

Democratic Sen. John Pinto of Gallup collected $27,463. Democratic Sen. Carlos Cisneros of Questa received $26,905, and Republican Sen. Lee Cotter of Las Cruces got $26,800. Senate President Mary Kay Papen, a Las Cruces Democrat, received $26,289.

They were among 18 lawmakers who collected more than $20,000 during 2013.

Cisneros said he’s able to serve on more legislative committees when the Legislature isn’t in session since he retired in 2009 from Molycorp, a subsidiary of Chevron that mines molybdenum near Questa.

“I can dedicate more of my time to legislative interim activity. So it’s beneficial from both ends. I learn more, get an opportunity to visit with folks across the state and keep abreast with what’s going on with pretty much all of the issues,” said Cisneros, who has served in the Legislature since 1985.

He’s chairman of the interim Revenue Stabilization and Tax Policy Committee and serves on a dozen other committees that typically meet in late spring, summer and the fall to consider issues expected to surface during the next legislative session.

New Mexico is the only state that doesn’t provide a yearly salary to its legislators, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But because of the daily expense payments, New Mexico isn’t at the bottom of the compensation list nationally.

Lawmakers in New Hampshire receive a yearly salary of $100, but no per diem when they meet. Connecticut legislators were paid a salary of $28,000 in 2013, but no per diem, according to the NCSL. Legislator salaries in other states ranged up to about $90,500 a year in California. Many states, including California, offer a salary as well as covering expenses for lawmakers.

In New Mexico, the daily expense payments were $154 a day during last year’s legislative session - $9,240 for the 60-day session - and rose to $176 from June through September and then went to $159 from October through the end of the year, according to the Legislative Council Service.

Under a constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 1996, the payments are tied to a federal rate for what’s tax deductible for room and board in Santa Fe while on business. The rate goes up or down as the government adjusts it for seasonal differences and inflation. Before the constitutional change, the expense reimbursements for lawmakers were $75 a day.

Compensation for legislators cost taxpayers $1.8 million in 2013.

Payments averaged $16,484 for the 112 lawmakers who served in the 60-day legislative session last year. That excludes reimbursements for one House member appointed in November to fill a vacancy and payments to a handful of lawmakers defeated in the 2012 elections. Lawmakers who aren’t re-elected to a new term can continue to serve on committees until their successors take the oath of office, and a few committees meet in early January before the Legislature convenes. New members are sworn in to office on the session’s opening day.

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Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

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