SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are speaking out after discovering a handful of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham‘s staff got big pay raises last year during the pandemic. Some lawmakers are not mincing their words when they found out about the pay raises.

“The people who received these raises protect the governor’s political image and put out her political message,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria (D- Albuquerque). “One of them I will note, Victor Reyes is now a candidate for Congress. This is sort of the short-sided, self-interested thinking that makes people question whether or not people in government know what it’s like to work a real job or have to live a real life. I think New Mexicans have a right to be frustrated and I think the governor is a hypocrite when she does things like this, it’s a very hypocritical act.”

The state’s Sunshine Portal shows how much each state employee makes. When comparing the numbers from 2020 to January 2021, we see the governor’s Director of Boards and Commissions raked in an extra $12,000. Her Chief of Staff also got a $13,000 pay bump. But one of the biggest jumps was her Communications Director who got a roughly $19,000 dollars pay increase.

Governor staff pay increases:

Name/PositionYear: 2020Year: 2021
Caroline Buerkle, Deputy Chief Operations Officer $125,001$135,001
Diego Arencon, Deputy Chief of Staff   $125,001 $135,001
Teresa Casados, Chief Operating Officer$135,200 $146,016
Dominic Gabello, Cabinet Director$133,120  $143,770
Matthew Garcia, Chief of Staff    $133,120    $146,016
Victor Reyes, Director of Legislative Affairs   $93,600$101,088 
Tripp Stelnicki, Director of Communications$88,399$107,000
Melissa Salazar, Director of Boards and Commissions$78,000  $90,000

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said in an email that some of these pay increases occurred during the pandemic and some of them were planned in 2019 but went into effect in 2020. Lawmakers said regardless if it was planned for 2020, her office should’ve changed those plans. Adding that many state employees, during the pandemic, couldn’t get pay increases and it’s tone-deaf to New Mexicans who have lost their jobs last year.

“There are a lot of hardworking New Mexicans out there that not only would love to have a job but much more a pay raise and they’re not getting that right now,” said Sen. Greg Baca (R- Minority Floor Leader). “So I think the timing of this pay raise and increase to the inner circle is really just poor judgment.”

The governor’s office said the legislature were the ones to lower pay increases for state employees like teachers were expecting to get last year. Her office also said she advocated to keep a sustainable portion of the proposed pay for state employees when lawmakers were looking to make cuts to save money for the pandemic. The governor’s office said some of her staff have been promoted since 2019 when she took office and their pay was adjusted to their new position.

The following is the full statement from the governor’s office:

Some employees in the Governor’s Office – and indeed across state government – have received pay increases since beginning work for the administration in 2019. It’s not accurate to say that they have all occurred “during the pandemic” as some have – some of them occurred in 2019 and some of them were planned in 2019 and went into effect in 2020. Some Governor’s Office employees have been promoted over that time frame and their pay was adjusted accordingly with the new work and position, including Mr. Garica, Mr. Arencon, and Ms. Buerkle.
I would note, for your context, that the depiction others may have used for the environment in which pay increases occurred is not accurate. In fact, the executive advocated for the preservation of a fiscally sustainable portion of the proposed pay raises for educators and other employees in the June 2020 special session. Ultimately the Legislature lowered the number to 1% as a cost-saving measure given the economic outlook at the time. As you know, it is the Legislature that appropriates funds to the governor’s office, which includes funding for employee salaries, which do change when employees are promoted or their responsibilities are expanded, just like in any other office. The office stays within its means as far as what is budgeted. 
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. They coordinate state departments and agencies, all of whom operate under the executive’s leadership, as outlined by the state constitution. This work has been particularly critical during the ongoing pandemic, as governor’s office staff have worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to direct the state’s COVID-19 response and continue to provide important information to the public.”

Nora Meyers Sackett, Press Secretary, Office of the Governor