Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

2-6 Salary Cuts for Some, Not Others

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Salary cuts have been a major topic throughout our nation during this time of financial crisis.
The discussion is headed by Wall Street executives of bailout companies who raked in a reported $18 billion in bonuses. That incurred the wrath of President Barack Obama, who called it shameful.
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill has introduced legislation to hold executive salaries and benefits to no more than the $400,000 salary of the president of the United States. President Obama is suggesting a cap of $500,000.
The executives themselves would think of either salary as a slave wage but for the 99 percent of us who make a whole lot less for a full year's work, it would be a dream come true.
Congressional pay raises also have been in the news. In 1989, Congress figured out a way to raise salaries automatically each year. This year's salary is pegged at $174,000, a 2.5 percent increase.
That seems like chicken feed next to salaries of corporate executives but in a year of salary cuts and freezes for those who are lucky enough to still have jobs, many Americans would like to see Congress treated the same.
The law that sets salaries also provides that members of Congress are free not to accept their automatic increases. Some do just that, but this year, others are taking it a step further
At last report, 81 members of the House have signed on to a bill freezing everyone's salary at last year's $169,300. Among those members individually turning down this year's pay hike plus signing on to the bill are Reps. Harry Teague and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.
Congressional leaders make a little more. The majority and minority floor leaders in both houses make $193,400. The speaker of the House pulls down $223,500 and the vice president, who officially presides over the Senate but seldom shows up for work, makes $208,000.
And then there those 470 state employees in exempt jobs who enjoy nice salaries without having to go through the state personnel qualifying system and working their way up through the ranks.
Obviously the governor needs to bring in his own team to run the administration but Gov. Bill Richardson has needed more help than the average governor.
Since those employees are not covered by State Personnel Act protections, the governor can unilaterally lower their salaries. And that is what he has done.
Double-dipping state retirees who go back to work with the state are causing another financial problem. They not only get their regular salary, they also receive full retirement benefits and don't have to make their contributions to the state retirement system.
The practice is hurting the already financially strained state retirement system and is a target for possible action by this year's Legislature. But nothing may come of it because those who are benefiting most are politically-connected employees who got the provision into the law initially.
One of the politically-connected retirees is David Harris, the University of New Mexico's chief financial officer. He receives a $65,000 state retirement benefit in addition to a $428,000 salary.
His big pay increases have been at the center of a faculty uproar over high executive salaries and a hefty increase in number of administrators.
President David Schmidly and UNM regents chairman Jamie Koch also have been caught up in that controversy. As a result, Koch's reappointment to another six-year term on the board could run into some confirmation problems with the Legislature.
Harris' trip up the salary ladder has been phenomenal. In 1995, he was lured with a big pay hike from his post as director of the state Legislative Finance Committee to become new Gov. Gary Johnson's secretary of Finance and Administration.
Harris managed to stay on in Gov. Bill Richardson's administration. In 2004 he went to UNM and soon became acting president. When Schmidly was hired Harris went back to head of finance at a salary almost double what he'd made before.

FRI, 2-06-09

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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