SANTA FE – Momentum appears to be building behind proposals to lift minimum pay in New Mexico state government to $15 an hour for at least 1,200 public workers who make less than that, amid a state budget surplus and national trends toward higher wages.
State Personnel Office Director Ricky Serna confirmed Friday that efforts are underway to increase bottom-tier salaries and boost overall state government payroll for rank-and-file employees at executive agencies. His agency oversees compensation guidelines for nearly 17,000 employees at executive agencies, with an $870 million annual payroll.
At a legislative hearing in late October, Serna outlined preliminary targets, including a $15-per-hour minimum and a 7% increase in annual payroll. Those estimates are for pay at executive agencies overseen by the governor and such other elected officials as the state attorney general, auditor and treasurer.
The $10.50 statewide minimum wage for all sectors of the economy steps up to $11.50 on Jan. 1, 2022.
Salaries have surged among many political appointees in the upper echelons of state government since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took office in 2019. At the same time, legislators have scaled back annual pay increases for rank-and-file workers in permanent state jobs since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Legislature convenes in January to forge a state spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022, with state government income expected to exceed current spending obligations by $1.4 billion. The surplus is linked to a quick recovery of oil and gas markets, and robust tax receipts as consumers tap into federal pandemic aid.
Democratic state Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup, chairwoman of the Legislature’s lead budget-writing committee, said New Mexico is having trouble recruiting and retaining public workers on the low end of the pay scale – wasting resources in the process.
“The cost of losing someone is far more expensive than paying them a decent wage. That turnover is a killer,” Lundstrom said Monday.
Lundstrom described even $15-an-hour pay as “ridiculously low,” and said she was eager to see the governor’s proposal.
Dan Secrist, a union chapter president for an array of state government workers under the Communications Workers of America, estimates it would take nearly $6 million to provide an hourly $15 minimum salary at executive agencies, along with the Legislature and judiciary.
He said it would take nearly $25 million to meet that minimum pay mark on a broader scale, including public schools, colleges and universities.
New Mexico government salaries lost ground to private-sector competition in the decade following the mortgage lending crisis and Great Recession, from 2008-2017, according to the Legislature’s budget and accountability office.
In the first budget signed by Lujan Grisham in 2021, state employees got a 4% pay increase. Further pay increases were scaled back during the first year of the pandemic, with a 1% pay bump for state workers with annual salaries of $50,000 or less in July 2020, and then a 1.5% pay increase this summer, with some additional money for frontline health workers.
Lundstrom said she also favors higher executive salaries for key leadership positions in state government, such as the secretaries of the Public Education Department and the Department of Health, amid the intense challenges the pandemic brings. Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus earns $158,340 as the state searches for a Health Department secretary.
Democratic state Rep. Candie Sweetser of Deming, who operates a local broadcasting company, and has grocery and real estate holdings, cautioned against moving aggressively to increase state government pay.
“The trend seems to be that we are going with higher salaries and better benefits, which makes it very difficult to hire in the private sector,” Sweetser said. “I just feel the need to say we can’t outpace the people that are contributing to government funds through the tax base, we have to also make sure that the markets remain competitive.”