On April 20, it was reported that 7 of Governor Mitchell Lujan Grisham’s top appointees were given pay raises averaging 22% that coincided with her 2022 election to a second term. They all are “at will” employees, can be terminated at any time without cause by the Governor and serve at the pleasure of the Governor.
The total yearly amount of the raises for the 7 is upwards of $162,000 a year. Each raise exceeded 17% and one reached 31%. One raise added $37,850 to an individual’s salary while another added $41,100. The 7 now make between $150,000 and $170,000 a year.
The 6 individuals, their titles and the amounts of the raises are as follows:
Holly Agajanian, Governor’s General Counsel: $135,908 to $150,000, a $14,091 (10%) pay raise.
Diego Arecon, Deputy Chief of Staff: $146,782 to $175,000 a $38,218 (19%) pay raise. Ricon retired from the Albuquerque Fire Department as a “pipeman” over 5 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. Before becoming a Bernalillo County Commissioner, the Governor worked for the Arecon as a lobbyist for the Firefighters union.
Daniel Schlegel, Chief of Staff: $112,476 to $185,000 a $72,524 (64%) pay raise. EDITOR’S NOTE: Schlegel was Director Of Strategic Plan & Initiative. It was on January 5, 2023 that Schlegal was promoted to the position of Chief of Staff replacing Interim Chief of Staff Courtney Kerster. Schlegel has been with the Governor since day one when she was sworn in for her first term. He has steadily risen through the ranks within the Governor’s office cultivating good relations with legislators.
Caroline Buerkle, Director of Cabinet Affairs: $146,781 to $175,000, a $28,218 (19%) pay raise. Editors Note: Buerkle is known to be a close personal friend and is a long time ally of the Governor, she has established strong working relationships with the Governor’s cabinet and frequently travels with her.
Teresa Casados, Chief Operating Officer: $158,758 to $185,000, a $26,241 (16%) pay raise.
Courtney Kerster, Senior Advisor: $133,900 $175,000, a $41,100 (30%) pay raise. EDITOR’S NOTE: This was the largest increase among the 5. Kerster served temporarily as the Governor’s Chief of Staff before returning to her job in January as a Senior Adviser to the Governor and Director of Federal Affairs.
Mariana Padilla, Cabinet Director: $133,900 to $171,750, a $37,850 (28%) pay raise.
RANK AND FILE PAY RAISES
The 2022 approve New Mexico State budget and authorized by lawmakers last year had funding for raises averaging about 7%. It included a 3% across-the-board increase in April last year and an average of 4% starting three months later, in July.
The 2023 New Mexico legislature enacted a $9.6 billion budget that will commence on July 1 and it contains funding for 6% raise for state employees and educators.
REACTION TO PAY RAISES
Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said the raises are justified and reflect the long hours and holidays worked by the governor’s staff. Hayden said this:
“These increases came at the end of the governor’s first four years in office. Merit-based raises are standard practice across virtually every workplace, and the governor recognizes the extremely hard work employees in her office do every day, which routinely includes work on holidays, late into the evening and over weekends, to serve the people of New Mexico.”
House Minority Leader Ryan Lane, R-Aztec questioned the the size and timing of the pay In doing so, Lane noted the governor vetoed legislation for a second time in two years that would have sharply boosted judicial salaries. Lane said this:
“[The salary increase] are as much as hard-working New Mexicans make in a single year, and that should cause some concern. … It’s also puzzling to me that the governor would veto salary increases for our judicial branch but also give large pay increases to select members of her staff.”
The governor’s staff pay increases did not show up on the state payroll at the same time for every employee as reflected by the states Sunshine Portal which publishes government pay once a month. The seven did have pay raises last summer when state employees more broadly received an average 4% raise. Casados and Arencón saw a pay raise of 4% in the August payroll data. None of the other five political appointees saw their job title change.
The link to the quoted news sources are here:
NOT THE FIRST TIME
This is not the first time the Governor has given large raises to members of her executive staff where the raises have been called into question and seriously criticized.
On February 4, 2021, it was reported that Governor Michell Lujan Grisham had 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.
In 2021, 8 of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s executive staff received salary increases totaling $92,000 over the previous 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 were again exempt, at will employees who serve at the pleasure of the Governor. The new salary pay ranges then were from $101,088 to $146,000.
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 8 salary increases given in 2021:
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. Stelnicki is no longer with the Governor and had been replaced by Maddy Hayden as the Governors Spokes person and Director of Communications.
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. Note that newly appointed Chief of Staff Daniel Schlegel is paid $185,000 a year.
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. Note that Teresa Casados is now paid $185,000 a year.
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. Cabello is no longer with the Governor and is a politcal consultant in the private sector managing campaigns.
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. Note that Arecon is now being paid $185,000 a year.
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. Note that Buerkle is now being paid $175,000 a year.
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. Reyes is no longer with the Governor having resign in 2021 to run for congress.
The link to a related blog article is here:
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
There is no getting around it. No matter what anyone says about how hard working those who got the raises are working, it’s very difficult to justify 20% pay raises let alone 64% pay raises. It’s called “grab the money and run” syndrome.
The job duties have likely changed very little over 5 years. Handing out such astronomical pay increases to political operatives is one sure way to lose credibility with the public and all other state employees and legislator’s, but its done all the time.
The Governor’s political operatives need to seriously ask themselves is it really worth it? Public service was never meant to be lucrative and they knew what they were getting into when they went to work for this Governor. Because of sure greed, its likely all 7 of those who got the recent raises think they are worth every penny of it and deserve it ignoring lost credibility and the public’s hostile reaction.
They also know their time is limited, they need to get what they can now, because come January 1, 2025, if not sooner, when a new Governor is sworn in, they will likely be looking for employment.