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Pay raises for New Mexico Governor's Office staff draw fire

Las Cruces Sun-News logo Las Cruces Sun-News 2/4/2021 Dan McKay, Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE - Eight top staffers under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham received salary increases totaling $92,000 over the past year — a 10% bump on average, far outpacing the raises more broadly granted state employees.

At least three of the increases appear tied to promotions or expanded responsibilities.

The increases, nonetheless, range from 8% to 21%, and most took effect by April.

The biggest change was for Tripp Stelnicki, the governor's communications director, whose annual salary increased by almost $19,000 since January 2020. His pay went from $88,000 in January last year to $107,000 by September, his second pay raise after a smaller bump in April.

a person sitting on top of a wooden table: In this photo provided by the New Mexico Office of the Governor, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs a $330 million economic relief package aimed at helping small businesses and out-of-work New Mexicans while at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020 in Santa Fe, N.M. © Associated Press In this photo provided by the New Mexico Office of the Governor, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs a $330 million economic relief package aimed at helping small businesses and out-of-work New Mexicans while at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020 in Santa Fe, N.M.

Lujan Grisham press secretary Nora Meyers Sackett, whose pay was unchanged over the past year, said some of the raises were planned in 2019 but didn't take effect until 2020.

Salaries "do change when employees are promoted or their responsibilities are expanded, just like in any other office," Sackett said in a written statement. "The office stays within its means as far as what is budgeted."

More: State economic relief plans take shape at New Mexico Legislature

The increased pay drew condemnation from Republican legislative leaders, who noted that at least some of the changes came after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and public health restrictions limited business activity.

"I thought the governor told us when she was shutting down the entire state that we were all in this together," House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R- Farmington, said in an interview. "Apparently, we're not all in this together."

He called the raises "very frustrating."

Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R- Belen, said in a written statement that Lujan Grisham "has chosen to prioritize political appointees over everyone else."

He said she has used "her executive budget to reward the loyalty of her inner circle."

Five got 8% raises

Five staff members under Lujan Grisham received 8% raises that surfaced in the April employee data file published on the New Mexico Sunshine Portal, according to a Journal analysis.

It's difficult to say precisely when they took effect, because the state publishes employee salary data only once a month. But the 8% raises show up for the first time in the April report. The pay raises were first reported by The Candle, an online publication covering New Mexico news.

The raises include a bump to about $146,000 a year for Teresa Casados, chief operating officer; to almost $144,000 a year for Dominic Gabello, Cabinet director; and to about $101,000 a year for Victor Reyes, director of legislative affairs.

Two others who received 8% increases in April also had recent promotions — Diego Arencon became deputy chief of staff and Caroline Buerkle became deputy chief operating officer. They each make about $135,000 now.

Matthew Garcia, who rose from general counsel to chief of staff, had his pay increased by almost 10% — to $146,000 a year, according to the April report.

Staffers 'play critical role'

Two other staff members had their pay boosted later in the year.

Stelnicki, the communications director, had his annual salary climb from $88,000 in January 2020 to about $100,000 in the April report and then to $107,000 in the September report.

Melissa Salazar, director of boards and commissioner, got a 15% increase in the December report, pushing her salary up to $90,000 a year.

Sackett said it wasn't accurate to describe all of the raises as having occurred during the pandemic. The state's emergency declaration was issued in mid-March when the first COVID-19 cases surfaced in New Mexico.

But Sackett said some raises were planned ahead of time.

Furthermore, members of the Governor's Office "staff play a critical role in the operation of the state's executive branch and the governance of the state — all of which is amplified during a yearlong crisis," Sackett said. "They coordinate state departments and agencies, all of whom operate under the executive's leadership, as outlined by the state Constitution."

More: Bill to help restaurants and workers advances in New Mexico Legislature

The work, she said, "has been particularly critical during the ongoing pandemic, as Governor's Office staff have worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week to direct the state's COVID-19 response and continue to provide important information to the public."

State employees generally haven't received raises approaching the 10% average for the eight staffers in the Governor's Office.

Teachers received 6% in the fiscal 2020 budget and were scheduled to receive 4% starting last summer, but the raises were rolled back to 1% in the June special session. State employees more generally had been scheduled to receive 4%, too, but their raises were rolled back or eliminated.

The top executives in the Legislative Council Service and Legislative Finance Committee, for example, haven't had their pay changed over the past year, according to the state's online salary records.

And some of the top staffers in the Governor's Office — besides the eight who got raises averaging 10% — didn't receive increases either.

This year's budget calls for about $7 billion in general spending.

The eight Governor's Office staffers with raises are all exempt employees, meaning they are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the governor.

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This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: Pay raises for New Mexico Governor's Office staff draw fire

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