Money and Citizens: Dede Feldman on Ethics in the NM State Legislature 

Evaluation Lab News

Posted: Jan 20, 2021 - 12:00am

A candidate for the New Mexico senate in the 1980s spent an average of  $2,500.  In today’s dollars that candidate would have spent about $6,000.  Compare those figures with the $1 million pumped into individual senate campaigns in 2020.  Dede Feldman, who served as state senator from 1997 until 2013 sees a direct connection between campaign spending and mistrust of government.   

Today, Sen. Feldman led the first MPP Policy Seminar of the semester, expanding on issues she raised in her book, Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens.  

One issue is ethics reform.  In the current system, legislators receive no salary and have no policy staff.  Instead, they get per diem payments that barely cover the cost of a hotel room when they are in Santa Fe for the legislative session.  They also receive limited policy support from committee staffers.  Lobbyists fill the gap with meals and other perks, and by offering content expertise.  Sen. Feldman suggested that legislators could receive stipends for constituent services and policy analysis, perhaps shared among a local delegation.  Professional staff could help legislators do a better job of serving their constituents and would reduce reliance on lobbyists.  Feldman also thinks that there need to be strict rules for recusal to avoid conflicts of interest.   

Countering the influence of lobbyists is the high degree of access to the state capitol that New Mexico residents enjoy.  In normal years (when we aren’t in the middle of a pandemic), New Mexicans are free to roam the state capitol.   Those with a compelling story, and who know the process, can make big things happen.  Sen. Feldman highlighted successful citizen advocacy that eliminated the death penalty, banned cockfighting and established a medical marijuana program.  

Sen. Feldman continues to advocate for ethics reform from outside the state legislature as a consultant for Common Cause.  She also serves on the MPP Community Advisory Board.