It has been reported by two separate news outlets that Democratic Governor Michell Lujan Grisham has given $7,400 to $18,000 pay increases to her personal staff while at the same time she and legislators were taking back a 4% raises promised to teachers, state employees and essential workers. The Governor also issued a hiring freeze for state government as a cost saving measure.
It was on June 18, 2020 that the Governor was forced to call a special legislative session to deal with the state’s deficit and to adjust the state budget amid historical deficits the result of the COVID-19 pandemic business closures and the collapse in oil revenues. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and New Mexico lawmakers were faced with more than $2 billion budget deficit that they dealt with during the special session. The state projected a $1.976 billion revenue loss for the Fiscal Year 2021 budget which began on July 1, 2020 and ends on June 30, 2021.
Links to the news articles are here:
RAISES GIVEN TO POLITCAL OPERATIVES
Eight of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s executive staff received salary increases totaling $92,000 over the past year. The raises took effect in April, 2020, before the special session to deal with the budget shortfall. The increases range from 8% to 21%. All 8 of the executive staff are exempt employees who serve at the pleasure of the Governor, can be terminated without cause, and have little or no job descriptions other than the titles they hold. The new salaries paid range from $101,088 to $146,000.
On average state, school, and hospital employees paid from state and federal funds are paid between $30,000 to $40,000 a year. Last year at the time the Governor approved the executive salaries increases, the Governor told state employs who were paid under $15 an hour they would not get the 4% pay increase originally approved by the 2020 Legislature but would be given a 1% pay increase instead. For a worker making $12 an hour, that would have been less than $20 more a week.
THOSE WHO WERE GIVEN GOVERNOR’S RAISES IDENTIFIED
Five of the eight were given 8% salary increases while the other 3 were given 21%, 15%, and 10% respectively. Following is a listing of the “GREEDY 8” salary increases:
Tripp Stelnicki, Director of Communications, went from a salary of $88,399 paid in January 2020 to a salary of $107,000 in January, 2021, or 21% salary increase.
Melisa Salazar, Director of Boards and Commissions, went from a salary of $78,000 in January 2020 to a salary of $90,000 in January, 2021 or a 15% salary increase.
Matthew Garcia, Chief of Staff, went from a salary of $133,120 in January 2020 to a salary of $146, 016 in January, 2021 or a 10% salary increase.
Teresa Cosados, Chief Operating Officer, went from a salary of $135,200 in January 2020 to a salary of $146,016 in January, 2021 or an 8% salary increase.
Dominic Cabello, Cabinet Director, went from a salary of $133,120 in January 2020 to a salary of $143,770 in January, 2021 or an 8% salary increase.
Diego Arencon, Deputy Chief of Staff, went from a salary of $125,001 in January 2020 to a salary of $135,001 in January, 2021 or an 8% salary increase. Diego Rincon was promoted to Deputy Chief of Staff which was said to have justified the salary increase because he assumed additional duties and responsibilities. Ricon retired from the Albuquerque Fire Department as a “pipeman” over 3 years ago and for a number of years was the president of the Firefighters union. It is common knowledge that Rincon over many years has had a strong working relationship with the Governor and that he has been within her “inner circle” giving advice and support to her during her years as a Bernalillo County Commissioner and as a United States Congresswoman.
Carolyn Buerkle, Deputy Chief Operations Officer, went from a salary of $125,001 in January 2020 to a salary of $135,001 in January, 2021 or an 8% salary increase. Caroline Buerkle was promoted to and became Deputy Chief Operating Officer, which was said to have justified the salary increase because she assumed additional duties and responsibilities. Buerkle is known to be a close personal friend and travels with the Governor often.
Victor Reyes, Director of Legislative Affairs, went from a salary of $93,600 in January 2020 to a salary of $101,088 in January, 2021 or an 8% salary increase.
OTHER STATE EMPLOYEES
The Governor of New Mexico is paid $174,000 a year. (https://ballotpedia.org/Michelle_Lujan_Grisham)
The Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico is paid $85,000 a year. (https://ballotpedia.org/Lieutenant_Governor_of_New_Mexico)
A little less than two years ago on May 24, 2019 ,it was reported that Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham approved a 17% salary increase for all Cabinet secretaries. The raises took cabinet secretaries’ annual pay from $128,000 to $150,000. At the time, Governor spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said the raises would help the state compete with the private sector in getting the best candidates.
The 2020 New Mexico legislature that convened in January, 2020, teachers were given 6% pay raises and were scheduled to receive 4% starting last summer. That all changed when on June 18, 2020 t the Governor was forced to call a special legislative session to deal with the state’s deficit and to adjust the state budget amid historical deficits. All government pay raises were rolled back to 1% in the June special session. State employees were given 4% pay raises, but those too were eliminated or rolled back to 1%. According to news reports, some of the top staffers in the Governor’s Office, besides the eight who got raises averaging 10% didn’t receive increases either. According to the state’s online salary records the top executives in the Legislative Council Service and Legislative Finance Committee have not had their pay changed over the past year.
SWIFT CONDEMNATIONS FROM REPUBLICAN LEGISLATORS AS DEMOCRAT LEADERSHIP REMAIN SILENT
Not at all surprising, the pay increases drew immediate condemnation from Republican lawmakers. The Republican legislative leaders noted that at least a few of the changes came after the Governor’s public health restrictions began limiting private business activity which were accompanied by layoffs and increases in unemployment benefit applications.
House Republican Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington had this to say:
“I thought the governor told us when she was shutting down the entire state that we were all in this together. … Apparently, we’re not all in this together. … [The raises are] very frustrating.”
Senate Republican Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, issued a written statement an said in part:
[Governor that Lujan Grisham] has chosen to prioritize political appointees over everyone else. … [She has used] her executive budget to reward the loyalty of her inner circle.”
Thus far, the House and Senate Democrat Leadership have not given any reaction to the raises.
GOVERNOR’S OFFICE RESPONDS
Nora Meyers Sackett, the Governor’s press secretary, responded in part to the criticism saying some of the raises were because of promotions and others were planned in 2019 but didn’t take effect until 2020.
Sackett said in part:
“[Salaries] do change when employees are promoted or their responsibilities are expanded, just like in any other office. … The office stays within its means as far as what is budgeted. [The Governor’s Office] staff play a critical role in the operation of the state’s executive branch and the governance of the state – all of which is amplified during a yearlong crisis. They coordinate state departments and agencies, all of whom operate under the executive’s leadership, as outlined by the state Constitution. … [Their work] has been particularly critical during the ongoing pandemic, as Governor’s Office staff have worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week to direct the state’s COVID-19 response and continue to provide important information to the public.”
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
There is no getting around it. No matter what any one can say, all 8 of the pay raises are a classic case of “do as I say, not as I do”. Lest anyone forget, Governor Lujan Grisham asked all state employees to take pay cuts. This was done after a full 8 years of no salary increases under former Republican Governor “She Who Must Not Be Named”.
Handing out $7,400 to $18,000 pay increases to personal staff and political operatives is one sure way to lose credibility with the public and state employees. The Governor’s political operatives need to ask themselves was it really worth it, and because of sure greed, they no doubt think they are worth it and deserve it.
The following Albuquerque Journal Editorial was published on Tuesday, February 8:
Editorial: Governor’s big raises for her inner-circle staff are tone deaf and wrong
BY ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL EDITORIAL BOARD
Monday, February 8th, 2021 at 12:02am
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham must think her communications director had a pretty good pandemic year sparring with Republicans, defiant businesses and churches, tweeting those focused on reopenings were a “death cult.”
Tripp Stelnicki was the biggest benefactor over the past year of pay raises ranging from 8% to 21% for several members of the governor’s inner circle. After a $12,000 annual pay raise around April, Stelnicki got a $7,000 bump by September, raising his annual salary almost $19,000 since January 2020.
Stelnicki now makes $107,000 annually – more than double the state’s median household income. This, during a global pandemic that put tens of thousands of New Mexicans out of work for much of last year. And Stelnicki wasn’t alone.
Seven other top staffers in the Lujan Grisham administration received salary increases over the past year at rates far greater than those granted to state employees. But then, road crews and teachers don’t work in the Governor’s Office.
Melissa Salazar, director of boards and commissions, got a 15% increase, pushing her annual salary from $78,000 to $90,000.
Matthew Garcia, who was promoted from general counsel to chief of staff, had his annual pay increased by almost 10%, from $133,120 to $146,016.
The remaining five members of the governor’s top staffers – chief operating officer Teresa Casados, Cabinet director Dominic Gabello, deputy chief of staff Diego Arencon, deputy chief operations officer Caroline Buerkle and director of legislative affairs Victor Reyes – all got 8% raises from January 2020 to January 2021.
The Governor’s Office said at least three of the pay increases – for Garcia, Arencon and Buerkle – were tied to promotions or expanded responsibilities. And no doubt all eight of these employees are putting in increased hours and facing greater pressure as they play key roles in how the state deals with an unprecedented pandemic.
Lujan Grisham press secretary Nora Meyers Sackett said some of the raises were planned in 2019 but didn’t take effect until 2020.
Even a deadly pandemic that crippled the state’s economy couldn’t stop the $92,000 in pay raises?
It certainly derailed other state employee raises. Teachers were scheduled to receive 4% raises starting last summer, but their raises were rolled back to 1% in the June special session. State employees had been scheduled to receive 4%, too, but their raises were rolled back or eliminated entirely.
What’s particularly galling is the governor’s tone deafness. And the public reaction was immediate.
“Wow! In private industry those levels are two to four grade-level promotions,” said Journal SpeakUp! writer DO.
“Under the category of adding insult to injury: Each of our state’s staff to MLG, besides receiving an unconscionable percent increase in salary, in a time of COVID-19, will probably be getting, and has gotten, stimulus checks from Uncle Sam, …” said SpeakUp! writer CL.
Nobody disputes members of the governor’s staff play a critical role in the operation of state government, especially during a public health crisis. But giving them raises averaging 10% while more than 100,000 New Mexicans are out of work, then doubling down and defending them, is opposite of the governor’s “We are in this together” pledge.
Instead, it shows just how out of touch the fourth floor of the Roundhouse can be.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.