By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Every statewide elected official except the highest-ranking one — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham — would get a hefty raise this year under a bill the Senate passed Saturday.
The decision to exclude the chief executive from a proposal to add nearly $60,000 to officials’ base salaries came amid concerns first raised late Friday the governor would be breaking the law if she signed a bill giving herself a raise.
“I see many sections of the [Governmental Conduct Act] that would be implicated and, in fact, language that would suggest that the governor signing the legislation that would affect her financial interests would be a fourth-degree felony,” Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said Friday night.
“I want these raises to happen, and it’s unfortunate that we have to have a circumstance like this,” Cervantes added. “But I’ve got to believe that the governor would be very cautious and maybe not quite so certain to sign this legislation and put herself at jeopardy of potential criminal violations.”
Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, who is co-sponsoring Senate Bill 442 with Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, had said earlier in the debate it was her understanding the governor planned to sign the bill into law if it reached her desk.
After Cervantes raised his concerns, Duhigg suggested carving out the governor from the proposed pay increases.
The Senate put off voting on the bill Friday night at the suggestion of Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and took it back up Saturday, when Duhigg proposed an an amendment that would delay until January 2027 the effective date of a salary increase for the governor.
“This means that the salary increase for the governor starts after the current term of this governor,” Duhigg said, referring to Lujan Grisham, who was reelected to a second four-year term in November.
“The salary increases for the rest of the constitutional officers would go into effect 90 days after we adjourn, assuming this passes and is signed,” she said.
The salaries of statewide elected officials have not been raised in more than 20 years. The bill calls for increasing the governor’s annual pay from $110,000 to $169,714 after the next election cycle.
Without the amendment to exclude a pay increase for the governor mid-term, Cervantes said, Lujan Grisham would be put into a position of “potentially exposing herself to felony liability … if she was to sign this bill without being exempted herself.”
But six other politicians, all Democrats, are poised to get a five-figure salary increase if the Democratic governor signs the bill into law.
Under the proposal, the salary for Attorney General Raúl Torrez would increase from $95,000 to $154,714. The salaries of Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, state Auditor Joseph Maestas, state Treasurer Laura Montoya and Commissioner of Public Lands Stephanie Garcia Richard would increase from $85,000 to $144,714.
The salary for the lieutenant governor, which Duhigg has said is not set in state statute, wasn’t part of the original bill. But the Senate passed an amendment that would also increase the pay of the office of lieutenant governor, currently held by Howie Morales, to $144,714.
The bill now heads to the House for consideration.
Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, said salary increases are warranted, but he questioned the amount.
“I think they deserve a raise — maybe even the governor — I’m just not sure that this is the right raise,” he said. “This is a 54% raise for the governor. We’re talking in our budget about a 5 or 6% raise” for state government employees.
Cervantes said the proposed pay increases could attract more candidates from the private sector. He said New Mexico’s last three governors, including Lujan Grisham, a former congresswoman and state Cabinet secretary, have all come out of “political office, ascending a political ladder.”
“They’re all just coming from political office to political office,” he said, adding it’s not just Lujan Grisham but other officeholders.
Maestas, for example, started off as mayor of Española. He went on to serve on the Santa Fe City Council and then on the Public Regulation Commission before he was elected state auditor. He ran for mayor of Santa Fe in 2018 but lost to Alan Webber.
“The positions we’re all talking about are government ascension on a political ladder,” Cervantes said. “I hope we’ll recognize we’re never attracting anybody out of the private sector into these positions, and I think that explains a little bit about what New Mexico could use a little bit more of, is that perspective of people who have succeeded perhaps in business or in their professions or in their careers outside of government.”
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, who was among the nine Republicans who voted against SB 442, said the Senate tends to get “lost in the discussion” that higher pay will attract a certain caliber of candidates.
“I think what we lose in that conversation … is the fact that serving the public isn’t supposed to serve your bank account,” he said. “Serving the public is something that you do because you have a passion for people.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.