Bills seek to rein in exempt jobs

By Kate Nash: The Santa Fe New Mexican

The issue of exempt employees on state government’s payroll hasn’t gone away this session, despite layoffs of 59 of the governor’s political appointees in January.

Sen. John Ryan, R-Albuquerque, again is pushing a measure that would limit the number of exempt state employees to about 400.

“The number of political hires is out of control,” Ryan said Thursday. “The Legislature has oversight authority and needs to get a handle on how many political hires a governor can have in an administration.”

The senator has said there are about 500 exempt employees in state government, although it’s been difficult to independently confirm that number. Department of Finance and Administration officials have said the number was more like 450.

Whatever the number, Ryan says its too much of a drain on the state’s sagging finances.

“There needs to be a limit on the number, otherwise our state budgets will continue to grow and grow without the Legislature’s consent,” he said. “It is a budget issue. It is a clear balance of power issue.”

The Senate’s Committees’ Committee on Thursday agreed that Ryan’s measure (SB 127) should be considered this session, which is limited to budget matters or issues that the governor puts on his call.

The average salary and benefits for an exempt employee comes to $105,000 a year, Ryan said, and reducing their number could save millions of dollars.

The measure comes after Gov. Bill Richardson last year vetoed a Legislature-approved bill that would have eliminated 102 exempt positions. He instead late last year said he would eliminate 59 exempt jobs.

However, the names, titles and salaries of the employees who were laid off remains unclear. In response to requests from journalists, Richardson’s office has stated that it didn’t have any documents related to the layoffs beyond e-mails and press releases issued on the subject.

Agencies asked directly for documents related to the layoffs, however, have begun to produce information.

At the Regulation and Licensing Department, which oversees financial institutions among other things, Richardson let go of the head of the Securities Division, Bruce Kohl. In addition, Benito Martinez, listed as the director of intergovernmental collaboration, was laid off, according to records obtained by The New Mexican. He was making $35.46 an hour.

At the same time, Tina Gonzales, an administrative assistant who was making $20 an hour for her job with the Athletic Commission Board, also was let go, the records show.

Other layoffs are reported to have affected the state Department of Public Safety, the Department of Workforce Solutions and the Economic Development Department.

Several departments, including The Office of Recovery and Reinvestment, the Corrections Department, Expo New Mexico, the Taxation and Revenue Department, the Aging and Long-Term Services Department, and the Department of Workforce Solutions, have said they don’t have any documents related to layoffs in their departments.

Requests filed by The New Mexican with other departments for documents related to the layoffs are still pending.

The elimination of some exempt jobs is expected to save the state $8.3 million — about the same as the five days of unpaid furloughs ordered by Richardson for about 17,000 state workers.

Meanwhile, another measure this session (SB 109) would prohibit exempt employees who earn more than $100,000, as well as elected officials, from earning compensatory time off or being paid for more than 40 hours a week. The bill also says accrued comp time could not be taken as a cash bonus.

Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, said employee costs such as comp time need to be considered as the state grapples with its budget crisis.

“The point is, a lot of us have our backs up because there are so many appointments by the governor, he’s taken advantage of a system we have no control over, and neither does State Personnel,” she said.

The bill also spells out that if a state employee retires and then returns to work for the state, the employee should be considered new for the purpose of calculating his or her annual leave based on years of service.

Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or knash@sfnewmexican.com.