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State judicial staffers getting 2.5% raises

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Pay will go up 1% for other state workers

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers this year approved a $5.9 billion budget that contains a 1 percent pay raise for all state employees, including teachers – their first across-the-board pay hike since 2008.

However, some state workers will soon be taking home bigger salary increases.

New Mexico Supreme Court justices unanimously approved an additional 2.5 percent pay increase for most judicial branch employees last month. Starting next month, some low-paid Magistrate Court employees could get even larger pay raises – up to 5 percent total.

Fern Goodman, general counsel for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said the judicial branch has had a difficult time filling job openings and wanted to reward employees who have worked for years without a pay raise.

“I think part of it was a decision by the Supreme Court to give them an incentive to stay,” Goodman said.

The pay raises will not apply to most judges, whose salaries are set in state statute, but will be permanent for the employees who receive them, she said.

A spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez said the judicial branch pay raises could lead to inequity among government workers.

“It’s not surprising the courts are granting pay raises that far outweigh those being received by nearly all other state employees, “‘ said Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell, because the judicial branch has been the beneficiary of budget growth that surpasses growth in education, health and human services and public safety.

The judicial branch is scheduled to receive roughly $209 million – a 5 percent increase from this year’s levels – in state funding during the budget year that begins July 1, according to the Department of Finance and Administration.

That’s a bigger increase percentage-wise than the overall 4.2 percent growth in state spending for the coming budget year.

It is unclear exactly how much the additional raises will cost. The judicial branch has 2,723 employees statewide, according to an online state database.

A top-ranking Democratic lawmaker who met with the Administrative Office of the Courts on the proposed pay hikes said Friday that he agrees with the decision to boost salaries, provided they can be paid without additional funding.

“If they can internalize these salary increases, we’re not opposed to that,” said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee.

The Governor’s Office acknowledged the judicial branch has the authority to spend the allocated funding as it deems fit, but alluded to the fact more spending for salaries means less money for other judicial branch expenses.

“The courts must weigh their programmatic, operational, capital and personnel needs, and it’s certainly their decision as to how they allocate their resources,” Knell said.

Chief Justice Petra Maes told lawmakers this year that the judicial system has had to delay building repairs and leave jobs open due to budgetary shortcomings. She also said the judicial branch has been struggling to keep pace with a growing caseload.

However, the Supreme Court noted in its May 23 compensation order that judicial employees have faced rising pension and health care costs in recent years.

Those expenses are expected to continue rising during the coming year, more than offsetting the scheduled 1 percent pay raise, the court noted in its order.

Meanwhile, some legislative and executive branch employees could also pocket pay raises that exceed 1 percent during the coming fiscal year, said David Abbey, executive director of the Legislative Finance Committee.

He said pay raises have been discussed for certain employees in the Corrections Department and Department of Cultural Affairs, along with legislative branch employees.

“There are a lot of conversations in play,” Abbey said.

State Personnel Director Gene Moser confirmed the discussions but said additional raises are just one possibility and have not been approved yet.

“We’re looking at alternatives in areas where there are critical shortages,” Moser said.

Varela, who has said high vacancy rates and stagnant salary levels have created a morale problem in state government, also said he expects other agencies to follow the judicial branch’s lead.

“You’re gong to see a lot of employees within the three branches of government that get more than the 1 percent we provided,” he said.

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