February 26, 2019

Pay hikes considered for state agency heads

Members of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet could get a raise.

A proposed state budget approved by the House of Representatives last week provides $250,000 the governor’s office confirmed Tuesday would be used to increase pay for the heads of state government departments.

The money comes as the new governor continues to fill out her Cabinet. Lujan Grisham has been blunt that the salaries her administration initially offered were too low for some prospective Cabinet officials. But as part of the biggest budget in state history, even this small line item is sure to draw criticism from Republicans.

It is unclear exactly how much of an increase in pay each Cabinet secretary would receive. But if the Senate passes House Bill 2, it would allow the administration to start providing raises.

All members of the new governor’s Cabinet currently are paid $128,000 a year, whether they run an agency with more a couple thousand employees, like the Department of Health, or a few dozen employees, like the Tourism Department.

According to salary records, that appears to be to an increase from the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez.

The former Republican governor cut pay for Cabinet officials on entering office in 2011 as the state still felt the pinch of the recession.

But as she began filling her Cabinet late last year, Lujan Grisham said the salaries were too low to attract some candidates.

“There was difficulty recruiting for some positions,” said the governor’s communications director, Tripp Stelnicki.

At one point in December, Lujan Grisham told reporters the pay was a barrier for some job candidates.

“Pay is not going to match what they were expecting or making in the private sector,” she said.

Neighboring states appear to pay better for some similar positions. Utah pays the head of its Department of Health, for example, nearly $139,000. Texas paid its last health and human services commissioner more than a quarter million dollars.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Democrat from Deming who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said late last year that he would back efforts during the session to provide supplemental funding to increase pay for Cabinet positions, arguing the state needs to beef up salaries for some posts.

But Republicans have criticized the proposed budget, which is now wending through the Senate, as already including too much new spending. At $7 billion, the proposal would mark a nearly 11 percent increase in general fund expenses.

Moreover, the governor’s Cabinet includes 23 secretaries as well as six other Cabinet-level officials — a web of administrators that some past reviews have suggested could be consolidated.

And the administration is still new, its Cabinet members just stepping into their jobs.

“You don’t get a pay raise one month into a new job,” said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque.

State employees are on track to get raises in the next fiscal year, too.

Proponents have argued that the increases in pay are key for remedying the shortstaffing that plagues many departments and hampers the government’s ability to provide even basic services in some areas.

The version of the budget approved by the House would provide 4 percent raises for most state employees.

Meanwhile, the House is also considering a constitutional amendment that — if approved by voters — would establish a commission to set pay for elected officials, including the governor and the currently unsalaried Legislature.