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Updated: Tuesday, 11 Dec 2012, 12:31 PM MST
Published : Friday, 05 Mar 2010, 9:25 AM MST
While the governor might talk your ear off about taxes, education and the Rail Runner, one subject remains off-limits: the political jobs he's handed out and then protected as the state budget plunged into crisis.
Take for example Maxine Otero. The governor got her a job doing secretarial work in the state prison system and set her salary at $60,000 a year to do office work.
That's nearly twice what the state pays a trained correctional officer at the Penitentiary of New Mexico.
But ask questions about her qualifications and how she got the cushy secretarial job, and the governor won't say. Yet there are some clues.
Maxine's father is wealthy Santa Fe contractor Sonny Otero, one of the governor's biggest campaign supporters. Sonny Otero has contributed some $86,000 to Richardson's Democratic campaigns, according to the New York Times.
So how did his daughter get her job?
"I want to be fair," said Dr. Zane Reeves, who teaches public policy at the University of New Mexico. "This governor's probably not much different from many other chief executives. They put their supporters in jobs that are rewarding, to say the least."
Maxine Otero is not the governor's only political hire and is part of a process Republican Gov. Gary Johnson said he tried to tamp down before left the governor's office in 2002.
"I think that was the tradition before I took office, and clearly it's a tradition that's been reestablished," he said.
And then there's former state Rep. Bennie Aragón. The governor tapped Aragón to be the New Mexico State Fair's Community Legislative Liaison.
It's a unique government position with no job description or defined duties. It's not clear what a Community Legislative Liaison might do, but whatever it is, Aragón is paid $61,000 a year to do it.
How does he spend his day? Consider Monday, Feb. 22. Bennie strolled into work at 10 a.m. and two hours later was off to Walgreens for a little shopping. At 1:15 p.m. the community-legislative liaison was back on the fairgrounds. At 3:05 p.m. it was quitting time, and Bennie called it a day.
Vague duties and high salaries disturb state Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, who deals with the spending of taxpayer money as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
"Many of those don't even have a job description or duties that really says, "T his is what the job is, this is what it entails, and these are the qualifications that are required for that,'" Larrañaga said. "It bothers me extremely, extremely, a lot."
The governor doles out about 450 state jobs that are exempt from the state merit system. That includes positions from highest-level cabinet secretaries to administrative assistants.
How does the governor decide whom to hire and what to pay them? That's a gubernatorial secret.
"This is not the real world," Johnson said. "These are jobs that would not exist in the private sector because the private sector actually has to meet payrolls and generate revenue."
With the state in the midst of a budget crisis, the governor's job hires are drawing legislative fire.
"We have a budget that is in the red by $500 million, and we've not had the discipline to say we have to restrain from spending," Larrañaga said. "We have continued to spend like a drunken sailor."
To Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a fellow Democrat, Richardson has abused his power.
"No. 1, he's aggravating the financial situation of the state of New Mexico," Smith said. "I think he's well aware of that."
In response to New Mexico's money crisis, the governor issued a bold directive to cut state spending. He ordered a freeze on all state hiring and said he would eliminate dozens of his appointed exempt jobs.
Even his own personal staff would be slashed costing aide Teresa Casados her $96,000-a-year position in his capitol office.
However it's not likely Casados had a going-away party. Just days after her position was eliminated in the governor's office, Casados resurfaced on the public payroll in Albuquerque at the Department of Workforce Solutions, the state labor agency.
Casados got not only a new job but a pay raise to boot. The former aide became the department's new governor's-exempt $99,000-a-year deputy cabinet secretary.
As a cost-cutting measure, the governor also eliminated Lloyd Garley's $89,000-a-year job at the labor department. But Garley didn't have to stand in the unemployment line very long.
Instead someone simply created a brand-new classified job just for Garley. Although his salary was cut to $75,000, Garley was back on the job at the labor agency with the added protection of a classified position within the state merit system.
And it's not just state jobs that are frozen. The governor also put a halt to pay raises. But KRQE News 13 has learned not all of New Mexico's 22,000 government employees had their pay checks frozen.
Despite the governor's directive, a News 13 investigation found hundreds of state workers getting pay raises anyway.
For up to a year, a state employee can earn a temporary salary increase if he or she takes on additional duties of a higher job.
Sandra Perez, New Mexico's state personnel officer, said she does not believe the governor's directive to freeze pay raises extended to temporary salary increases.
"A temporary salary increase allows you to appropriately pay somebody for assuming in some cases two and three and four jobs that you have otherwise left vacant," Perez said. "They get an increase to their hourly rate for doing additional duties they wouldn't otherwise do or of a job that's of a higher-rated class, but it's not a permanent increase to their pay by any means."
Perez did not agree that a temporary salary increase is the same things as a pay raise.
"No," she said. "We're going to agree to disagree on that one."
For Larrañaga, though, a pay raise is a pay raise.
"Right now we can't afford any salary increases for employees either in state employees or education employees," he said. "We are upside down. We are in the red right now $500 million in the budget."
Smith has a simple take on Richardson's actions: The governor just doesn't get it.
"This governor is abusing the privilege," he continued. "It's the Legislature's responsibility to step to the plate, and I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that many of my legislative colleagues, to my way of thinking, are trying to sweep it under the rug."
The state cannot afford to sweep it under the rug, he added.
If the governor has a defense for his actions, he has not shared it with News 13 and refused a request for an interview.