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Editorial: Governor’s big raises for her inner-circle staff are tone deaf and wrong

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.