February 26, 2023

Lawmakers push $60,000 pay hike for governor, other elected officials

Laura Paskus

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

George W. Bush was serving his first term as president and the first season of American Idol premiered on TV the last time the governor of New Mexico received a salary increase.

Not just the governor but the attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and state land commissioner haven’t seen raises in more than two decades.

Three high-ranking Senate Democrats are championing a proposal to give them each a nearly $60,000 raise.

Whether the five-figure salary increase should take effect immediately or after the next election cycle in January 2027 triggered an hourlong debate Friday in the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee that grew testy at times.

Sen. Katy Duhigg of Albuquerque, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 442 with Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, said the salaries of elective state officers, which haven’t changed in 21 years, “are awfully low, especially considering the incredible work that goes into these positions.”

“As an anecdote, I heard that when our new attorney general moved into his office, he had to bring with him a George Foreman Grill to cook his lunches on because of the pay cut [the former Bernalillo County district attorney] was taking,” she said, referring to Raúl Torrez.

“It is hard to get good people to run for these positions when they pay so little,” Duhigg added.

Under the proposal, the attorney general’s annual salary would jump from $95,000 to nearly $155,000.

For the governor, it would increase from $110,000 to nearly $170,000. That’s higher than the average pay for governors across the nation of $148,939, according to 2022 data from the nonprofit U.S. Council of Governors. Salaries for governors ranged from $70,000 in Maine — a rate set in 1985 — to $250,000 in New York, the council’s 2022 data shows.

The proposed raises would make the governor of New Mexico the highest-paid in the region, with gubernatorial salaries of $92,700 in Colorado, $95,000 in Arizona, $150,000 in Utah and $153,750 in Texas.

The national average salaries for secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer are $121,628, $139,075 and $126,015 a year, respectively, according to the Council of Governors. New Mexico’s officeholders currently make well below these averages but would make more if the raises pass.

The proposal to give statewide elected officials in New Mexico a raise comes amid a push to pay state lawmakers a salary, part of a larger effort to modernize the Legislature. Specifically, lawmakers are considering a proposed constitutional amendment to establish a citizens commission on compensation that would have the authority to set legislators’ salaries.

Sen. Brenda McKenna, D-Corrales, called the current salaries for top New Mexico officials “disrespectful.”

“I can’t say that loud enough,” she said.

The original version of SB 442 called for the proposed salary increases to go into effect in January 2027.

At the beginning of Friday’s committee hearing, however, Duhigg proposed a “very simple amendment” for the pay raises to go into effect right away if the bill is signed into law, even though a fiscal impact report states the New Mexico Constitution prohibits salary increases for public officials from taking effect during their terms.

Duhigg, citing what she called a “lengthy” 1971 court opinion, said she believes the fiscal impact report is “wrong.”

Her proposal set off a back-and-forth of differing opinions among lawmakers.

“Why would we want to do that?” asked committee Chairman Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque. “They were willing to run for it at these salaries. Why would we want to increase them now?”

Duhigg said one reason is to “appropriately compensate” the elected officials for the “incredibly hard work” they are doing.

“The fact that people are willing to do public service should not foreclose ever appropriately compensating them for that service,” she said. “I ran for this position knowing it didn’t pay a penny. I still think we should have a paid professional Legislature.”

Ortiz y Pino said he agreed the salaries of statewide elected officials need to go up, and noted lawmakers have approved similar bills in the past. But he said making the proposed salary increases effective immediately is “just wooing a veto” from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

“I mean, it’s like killing the bill to do that,” he said.

Increasing the officials’ salaries now is “like handing a hand grenade” to them if they plan to seek an elective office again, Ortiz y Pino argued. “That’s the first thing their opposition will reveal — ‘Well, they raised their own salary.’ ”

Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque, also advocated for a 2023 effective start date.

“The people who are in these positions deserve to be compensated at something that gets close to what they might be able to do in the real world,” he said.

Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, said he didn’t “like the idea at all” of the proposed raises taking immediate effect.

Gallegos also questioned why the lieutenant governor’s salary wasn’t included in the proposed raises.

“It looks really bad that our helper for the governor is not even being considered,” he said.

Duhigg said the lieutenant governor’s salary is not fixed in statute the same way as the other statewide elected officials.

Gallegos suggested the bill include the lieutenant governor in “fairness,” even though he still opposed the bill.

While the committee didn’t include the lieutenant governor’s salary in the bill, it did increase the amount of money the lieutenant governor would receive each day he or she serves as acting governor to $500 from $250.

Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, said he “wholeheartedly” supported the proposed raises but was “a little troubled” by pushing up the start date.

Tallman and Ortiz y Pino joined the two Republicans present for Friday’s hearing, Gallegos and Stuart Ingle of Portales, in voting against the amendment calling for an earlier start date, resulting in a tie vote that killed the proposal.

After the committee moved to debate the bill itself, Ortiz y Pino questioned the need to increase the officials’ salaries.

“Has that delayed anybody seeking any of these offices?” he asked. “It’s not like we have a shortage of candidates out there.”

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, argued the current salaries limit who can run for office.

“If you’ve got two kids in college or whatever, it’s going to be very tough,” she said.

Ortiz y Pino said the discussion was making him “blue in the face.”

Even after the committee rejected the idea of moving up the start date of the proposed raises, McKenna pursued the issue, which appeared to frustrate Ortiz y Pino.

“Senator, with all due respect, we’ve been down that road,” he told her. “We’ve tried to pay them in the middle of their term, and it didn’t get out of here.”

Ortiz y Pino reiterated that moving up the start date would all but guarantee a veto.

“We’re the one doing the legislation,” McKenna protested.

“Go ahead,” Ortiz y Pino replied. “You make your motion, and if it passes, it’ll be fine. Go ahead. I don’t know what else to tell you. Go ahead and make a motion.”

“I’m just trying to discuss this, and I just feel like there’s a lot of tension, and I’m trying to figure out why,” McKenna said.

“There is a tremendous amount of tension because we’ve already talked about it for 30 minutes,” Ortiz y Pino said, “and we’re still going over the same topic, so if you could add something new to the discussion, that would help.”

“Wow,” McKenna said.

She eventually dropped the issue, and the committee endorsed the bill with its original start date of January 2027. 

SB 442 heads next to the Senate Finance Committee. Muñoz, one of the sponsors, chairs the committee.

Office Current salary Proposed salary

Governor $110,000 $169,714

Secretary of State $85,000 $144,714

State Auditor $85,000 $144,714

State Treasurer $85,000 $144,714

Attorney General $95,000 $154,714

State Land Commissioner $90,000 $149,714