Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Less than five months into her tenure as governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham has authorized 17% salary increases for all Cabinet secretaries in her administration.
The raises, which took effect for the pay period that started last week, will increase the appointees’ annual pay from $128,000 to $150,000 and are intended to make the state more competitive with the private sector when it comes to paying agency heads.
“This administration believes if you want the best, you’ve got to pay for the best,” said Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki.
Some lawmakers say they’re not opposed to the pay raises, which are more than four times larger than the pay raises – of 4 percent – that rank-and-file state workers will be getting in July.
“If you want to get the kind of people you need in those positions, you’ve got to pay them,” said Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec.
He acknowledged the raises might be politically perilous, but said some New Mexico school superintendents, county managers and other municipal employees already make in excess of $150,000 per year.
But Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, expressed concerns that members of Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet will be getting bigger pay bumps than social workers, State Police officers and other state government employees.
“I don’t think it sends the right message to the rank-and-file individuals,” Brandt said.
After being elected as governor in November, Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said several times during the transition period that low salary levels were a stumbling block in her administration’s effort to assemble a Cabinet with top-notch appointees.
“While $128,000 is an unimaginable sum of money for most New Mexicans, we’ve got to be competitive with the private sector for some of these folks who are true leaders in their fields,” Stelnicki told the Journal.
Several agency heads ultimately appointed by Lujan Grisham have private sector experience, including Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes, who previously worked as the executive director of worldwide acquisitions for the Walt Disney Co.
In all, New Mexico’s state government has 23 Cabinet-level departments, whose secretaries will all be receiving the salary increases. Several other appointees who are not technically considered Cabinet secretaries – including State Engineer John D’Antonio and Regulation and Licensing Superintendent Marguerite Salazar – will also receive the raises, Stelnicki confirmed.
That means the total cost of the salary increases will be roughly $550,000 annually.
The pay raises also represent a stark departure from the Cabinet pay levels established by Lujan Grisham’s predecessor, former Gov. Susana Martinez.
Martinez, a Republican who served two terms as governor before stepping down at the end of last year, capped salaries for state Cabinet secretaries at $125,000 annually shortly after taking office in 2011.
That came after pay levels for Cabinet secretaries had risen to more than $170,000 per year in some cases under then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who served from 2003 through 2010.
Lujan Grisham, who herself was a Cabinet secretary under three different governors, did veto a bill after this year’s 60-day legislative session that would have increased her own $110,000-per-year salary – along with the pay levels of other statewide elected officials – by 15 percent.
She said in her veto message of the legislation she was not comfortable signing into law a pay raise that “may apply to current office holders who could run for re-election in 2020 and beyond.”
Unlike appointed officials, who are exempt from the state’s classified hiring system and work at the pleasure of the governor, the salary levels for elected officials are set in state statute and can only be changed via legislation.
Meanwhile, the salary increases for members of Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet come as the state is in the midst of unprecedented revenue windfall, driven primarily by an oil drilling boom in southeast New Mexico.
The state had an estimated $1.2 billion budget surplus for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.