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Gov.'s Appointees Get Record Pay

By Martin Salazar
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    The University of New Mexico is helping foot the bill for the record-setting salaries of two of Gov. Bill Richardson's new Cabinet secretaries.
    And New Mexico State University is getting in on the act by picking up the entire tab for another Richardson appointee.

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  • RELATED STORY: Provost 'Terminated' To Allow UNM To Supplement Pay more

  •     UNM will pay nearly $100,000 a year toward Higher Education Secretary Reed Dasenbrock's $257,250 salary and $60,000 a year toward Health Secretary Alfredo Vigil's $175,000 salary.
        NMSU, meanwhile, is still paying William Flores his $220,000 provost salary while he serves as deputy secretary of higher education. Flores remains on staff at NMSU— and part of his responsibility is dealing with the Higher Education Department.
        While the salaries are a record level for their new jobs, all three were drawing close to the same amount at their previous positions.
        The arrangements have some lawmakers— both Republicans and Democrats— concerned about potential conflicts of interest and about Cabinet salaries exploding to new levels.
        Both Dasenbrock and Flores will make nearly $100,000 more than their predecessors, while Vigil will get about $60,000 more than the previous health secretary.
        "It's the fox watching the chicken house ...," said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales. "You can't help but think there's going to be some conflicts there."
        Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, agreed.
        "I think there's a wealth of conflicts of interest there," said Jennings, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "The way the system is set up, there are systems of checks and balances. When the checks and balances go away, then what do we do?"
        But Richardson spokesman Allan Oliver said the governor doesn't see a conflict of interest.
        "Cabinet secretaries report to the governor. It's their duty to implement the governor's aggressive plan to improve our universities and two-year institutions as well as improve the health and health care in our state ...," Oliver said. "This is an opportunity to bring New Mexico's best and brightest to the senior levels of policymaking for the benefit of all New Mexicans."
        Billy Sparks, executive director of communications and marketing for UNM's Health Sciences Center, said having a medical school cover part of a health secretary's salary isn't unprecedented. He said it's done in Arkansas.
        Leslie Taylor, a spokeswoman for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, confirmed that the medical school helps pay the salaries for Arkansas' chief health officer and for the director of the state's department of health and human services. She said that's been the case for about three years and that so far no issues have arisen regarding conflicts of interest.
    More than the gov.
        The Higher Education Department is tasked with approving budgets submitted by all of the state's colleges and universities and ensuring that available resources are distributed equitably.
        Dasenbrock's $257,250 salary as higher education secretary is the same amount he was earning as UNM provost, a position he left to take the state job. That's more than double the $110,000 salary Richardson earns as governor. Dasenbrock's predecessor was paid $157,497.
        UNM will supplement Dasenbrock's salary by about $100,000 a year. An agreement between UNM and Dasenbrock states that the university is paying Dasenbrock the amount he's owed for an unused yearlong sabbatical.
        Following his service as a Cabinet secretary, Dasenbrock can return to UNM as a tenured professor of English.
        "My understanding is that there are other Cabinet secretaries who have been lent from institutions to state government, and the theory— I think it's a good theory— is that we are all working together in the interest of higher education," Dasenbrock said.
        Dasenbrock said he thinks his appointment has been well-received by the higher education community.
        "I'm not UNM's guy in Santa Fe," Dasenbrock said.
        "My sense is that in time, people will understand that I am working on behalf of all New Mexicans and all New Mexico higher education institutions, and if there is skepticism of that, come back in a few months and let's see where we are."
    Longtime ties
        As the health secretary, Vigil runs a massive agency that employs about 4,000 people. Its responsibilities range from parceling out health dollars to service providers to investigating complaints against hospitals.
        Vigil, who will get more than one-third of his salary from UNM, said there have always been close ties between the Health Department and UNM's medical school.
        "I think anyone who looks at it from a fair point of view will see nothing but benefits," said Vigil, who as part of the agreement will become a faculty member at the medical school.
        "We wouldn't let UNMH off the hook for a major licensing problem they may have just because I'm on the faculty over there," he said.
        An agreement released to the Journal last week shows that UNM will pay the state $60,000 for the teaching and community services Vigil performs for the medical school.
        Vigil said he's been a volunteer faculty member at the medical school for years, that he sits on committees and provides technical consultation on projects involving rural health and uncompensated care in New Mexico. All that will continue, he said. Vigil said that among his other duties for UNM will be working to attract students of color and those from under-represented communities into graduate study and research in health fields.
        UNM Health Sciences Center spokesman Sam Giammo said the money to pay Vigil is coming from the medical school's general fund and won't affect any other paid positions.
        "We were fortunate to receive a fairly decent budget this year," Giammo said. "The Legislature treated us well this year."
        He said the medical school sees the arrangement with Vigil as a way to form a stronger partnership with the Health Department.
        The agreement between the Health Department and UNM states that Vigil will be paid $175,000 a year as health secretary. The only Cabinet secretary drawing a higher salary is Dasenbrock.
        Vigil's salary is $57,500 more than what former health secretary Michelle Lujan Grisham was earning. Grisham wasn't a physician.
        Vigil declined to say what he was earning as chief executive officer of El Centro Family Health, except to say that his take-home pay is slightly less now.
        El Centro's federal tax returns for the period from June 1, 2005, to May 31, 2006, list Vigil's salary at that time as $153,898.
    On loan from NMSU
        And then there's Flores, the former NMSU provost whom Richardson tapped to be deputy higher education secretary in April.
        "I have been trying to steal him for four years," Richardson said at the time.
        Flores is apparently just on loan to the Higher Education Department.
        "Dr. William Flores is an active employee and tenured faculty member of NMSU," states an e-mail from Jennifer Taylor, the university's vice president for business and finance. "He will continue to be paid the same salary by NMSU in accordance with the terms of his employment. One of his roles is to work with the State Higher Education Department on a variety of assignments."
        NMSU spokeswoman Mary Benanti said Flores' salary is about $220,000.
    'Political advantage'
        Sen. Kent Cravens, R-Albuquerque, expressed skepticism about the universities helping to pay salaries for Richardson's Cabinet.
        "There's no question that in order to attract qualified people, you have to pony up," Cravens said. "But putting it in a situation where one institution might have a political advantage over another seems like a stretch. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with it."
        Ingle, the Republican senator from Portales, said that in his 24 years in the Senate, he's never heard of anything like this.
        "I just don't think this is something that should be happening," Ingle said, adding that he thinks there are serious ethical problems with it.
        "Everybody's worried about our ethics in our Legislature, but nobody is looking at theirs," said Jennings, referring to the Richardson administration. He also voiced concern about what he called "huge salary increases" for members of the governor's Cabinet. He said the increases pose a problem given that the Legislature tries to pay its employees comparable salaries to what the administration is providing.
        "When we get into a spiral like this, that the Legislature did not start, who's going to pay?" Jennings asked. "John Q. Public."