State Cabinet heads to receive 17% pay increase
New Mexico state Cabinet secretaries will find a little extra in their next paycheck: a 17 percent bump in compensation that a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday is necessary to keep salaries for top government jobs competitive.
Department heads will see their $128,000 annual salary climb to $150,000, the spokesman confirmed.
“When you want to hire the absolute best, from places all over the country, as New Mexicans deserve, you’ve got to be competitive with the private sector,” spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said.
The raises, which took effect Monday, will cost taxpayers more than $500,000 a year.
The move to elevate pay for department chiefs was not a surprise. Lujan Grisham said during her campaign as the Democratic candidate for the office, and during the transition period after the election last year, that Cabinet members should be better paid — and that recruiting to fill positions at the starting salary level was “on occasion, a stumbling block.”
“Pay is not going to match what they were expecting or making in the private sector,” Lujan Grisham said in December as she was making appointments to her Cabinet, whose members already make more than the governor’s $110,000 annual salary.
Around the same time, Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming — known as a fiscal conservative and budget hawk — said late last year that he would back efforts during the session to increase pay for Cabinet positions, arguing the state needed to beef up salaries for some posts.
Raises for Cabinet secretaries were contemplated in budget proposals that worked through the legislative process.
“The governor inherited a state government with outrageous vacancy levels,” the governor’s spokesman said Wednesday. “… State government was actively starved the last eight years, and New Mexicans were on the losing end of that deal. A thriving state that is responsive to the needs of the people is the goal, and we are en route. Paying agency leaders what they are worth is part of that equation.”
One Republican not buying that argument was state Sen. Mark Moores of Albuquerque.
His first response when asked about the raises Wednesday was, “Are you kidding me?”
Moores pointed out that the median household annual income in New Mexico, according to the latest U.S. Census figures, is less than $47,000. State agency heads, he said, will make more than three times that.
“If you took the job, to serve the people of New Mexico just three months ago, you shouldn’t be getting a big pay raise now,” he said. “Were they promised pay raises when they took the job?”
At least some neighboring states pay more for some similar positions.
The head of the Texas Department of State Health Services is paid more than $240,000, while the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety makes more than $230,000. As of July, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment made more than $160,000.
Lujan Grisham’s move contrasts with the approach taken by her predecessor, Republican Susana Martinez, who days after being inaugurated announced that all Cabinet secretaries would see smaller salaries than those paid in the prior administration.
Under Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, some department heads were making more than $170,000. Martinez’s first term began while the state and much of the nation were suffering from the recession.