Arkansas legislative panel approves pay changes requested by Sanders

By: - January 19, 2023 2:57 pm
Left to right: Aaron Black, budget director for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kay Barnhill, director, Office of Personnel Management, testify before the personnel subcommittee of the Legislature's Joint Budget Committee on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. (Screenshot)

Left to right: Aaron Black, budget director for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kay Barnhill, director, Office of Personnel Management, testify before the personnel subcommittee of the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. (Screenshot)

A legislative budget subcommittee approved salary increases for several members of the governor’s cabinet and accepted new salary ranges for five newly created positions on the governor’s staff.  

The five new classifications cover the governor’s chief of staff, two deputy chiefs of staff, public affairs director and chief legal counsel with authorized salary ranges between $134,406 and $181,500. The salaries of the current classifications for similar positions in the governor’s office are below $100,000. 

The personnel subcommittee of the Joint Budget Committee also approved pay hikes for two deputy secretaries of the Department of Human Services.

Kay Barnhill, director of the state Office of Personnel Management, and governor’s office Budget Director Aaron Black both told the panel that the changes would not require additional funds beyond already authorized appropriations.

During the interim between November’s election and the Jan. 10 inauguration, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders named Gretchen Conger her chief of staff, Judd Deere and Kelly Eichler as deputy chiefs of staff, Jordan Powell as public affairs director, and Andrew “Vu” Ritchie as chief legal counsel.

The state’s salary transparency website lists Conger’s salary as $99,999.95. The request approved by the subcommittee Tuesday creates a salary range of $149,882 to $181,500 for the chief of staff position.

Ritchie’s current salary is $99,999.74, according to the transparency website. Under the new classification, the chief legal counsel’s salary would range between $134,406 and $167,000. 

The same salary range would apply to Powell, the public affairs director, and Deere and Eichler, the deputy chiefs of staff. Deere and Eichler are both paid $89,999.94, according to the transparency website. Powell is not yet listed on the site.

The pay increases resulting from the new job classifications will be offset by letting five vacant positions in the governor’s office budget go unfilled, Barnhill told legislators. Those vacancies include two management specialist positions and three administrative assistant positions with salaries ranging $36,155 to $72,821.

Sen. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) asked Black whether the salary requests indicated that the administration will expect state agencies “to do more with fewer people” going forward.

“That’s a very accurate description of the current restructuring,” Black replied.

He said he’s also impressed on cabinet secretaries the need “to be innovative and utilizing talent to do more with less individuals.”

The subcommittee approved salaries for the secretaries of Human Services, Education, Commerce and Corrections that are above the maximum $201,700 salary for those classifications. State law allows the governor, with approval of the Joint Budget Committee during a legislative session, to pay agency directors up to 50% above the maximum pay level of the classification.

Secretary of Human Services Kristi Putnam, a former official in Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services, will be paid $225,000 a year, $23,000 more than her immediate predecessor Mark White but $62,000 less than his predecessor Cindy Gillespie, who left former Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration in October.

Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva will be paid $250,000. Oliva came to Arkansas after serving in the Florida Department of Education as senior chancellor. Johnny Key, the previous education secretary, received a salary of $239,361 a year. 

Secretary of Commerce Hugh McDonald, a retired Entergy Arkansas executive, will be paid $225,000. Mike Preston, former head of the department, was paid $168,047, but he also received an annual bonus of roughly $50,000 paid through a private foundation for also serving as director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. McDonald will not hold the dual positions, Barnhill told the panel. 

Secretary of Corrections Joe Profiri, who was a deputy director of corrections in Arizona, will be paid $210,000. Solomon Graves, his predecessor, was paid $170,276, according to the transparency website.

“These positions are related to the governor’s priorities,” Black told legislators, “and pursuit of additional revenue was part of attracting these people” to serve in the Sanders administration.

Salary increases above the authorized maximum for two deputy secretaries in the Department of Human Services also received subcommittee approval.

Deputy Director for Youth and Families Mischa Martin and Deputy Director of Health and State Medicaid Director Jane Mann’s salaries will be boosted to $172,000 a year, an approximately 3% increase from the maximum. The transparency website lists Martin’s salary as $157,099.90. Mann had worked in the department until 2021 when she left for a job in the private sector. 

In response to questions from the panel, Barnhill noted that the higher salaries would bring Arkansas to a competitive level with other states in the region.

Rep. Jim Wooten (R-Beebe) said he wanted subcommittee members to understand “that monetarily this is going to be a wash.”

Black commented: “We will stay within our existing appropriations.”

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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. Most recently, he retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years. He got his start in journalism as editor of the Nicholls Worth, the student newspaper at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1973. Nicholls awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters in 2014.

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