Top appointees in Gov. Tony Evers’ administration received pay increases averaging about 5.8% over what they or their predecessors earned last year, while Cabinet secretary pay increased by more than twice that amount, according to a Wisconsin State Journal analysis.
Double-digit percentage increases to a few dozen Evers appointees significantly boosted the overall average increase. The median increase among the dozens of positions was about 3%, much closer to recent annual wage increases seen by the typical state or private-sector worker in Wisconsin.
Even with the increase, Evers’ top-paid Cabinet secretary makes less, adjusted for inflation, than what the position paid 16 years ago.
Evers’ pay to his top subordinates has become an issue for Republican lawmakers, who have criticized the increases as excessive, especially for the highest-ranking officials.
“The governor campaigned on being for the little guy,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna. “The focus seems to be on the top of the rung of the ladder in his administration.”
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said he’s concerned by the pay increases coupled with Evers’ budget plan. It proposes more than $1 billion in tax increases on large manufacturers, high earners and fuel sales while cutting income taxes for the middle class.
“More money for Madison bureaucrats and less for hardworking taxpayers of Wisconsin is not the message we should be sending,” Nygren said.
Evers’ office has maintained the pay increases are reasonable. Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said in a statement that “Evers values public service and believes in fair compensation for the professionals who choose to serve our communities by working in local, state and federal government.”
“The administration has assembled a diverse and talented group of leaders to serve our state,” Baldauff added. “We know that taxpayers will benefit from their expertise.”
The State Journal reviewed salary data for 127 Evers administration officials, obtained through a public records request to the state Department of Administration. The data included the top three officials in each Cabinet-level agency, as well as administrators of agency divisions, chief attorneys, communications directors and legislative advisers. It excluded positions that were vacant last year or that are currently vacant.
All employees covered in the analysis are unclassified employees, which means they’re appointees of the administration and don’t have the civil-service protections afforded other state workers.
About 30% of the officials whose salaries were included in the review retained their positions from the administration of Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The rest were either newly appointed by the Evers administration or in two cases, moved to different positions. For the latter group, the State Journal compared current pay levels with those of their predecessors in 2018.
Findings of the analysis included:
- Evers’ 13 Cabinet secretaries received salaries averaging nearly 12% above what their predecessors made a year earlier;
- Nine legislative advisers to Cabinet agencies received raises averaging about 11%;
- Thirty positions received increases of 10% or more;
- Officials who were holdovers from the Walker administration saw pay increases averaging 3% while those who were newly appointed or changed positions under Evers received an average increase of 7.1%;
- About half of the positions received raises of 5% or less. Nine positions received no pay increase or a slight decrease.
The highest-paid Cabinet secretary is Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan. He’s making $152,755 this year, compared to his predecessor Ellen Nowak, who made $134,659 last year, a 13.5% increase.
In 2003, as the state faced a budget deficit, then Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle rescinded raises he had given to his Cabinet secretaries earlier that year after taking office. That set the Secretary of Administration’s salary back to $122,000, which adjusted for inflation would be $169,000 in today’s dollars.
Under Evers, the position that received the biggest pay increase is assistant deputy secretary of the Department of Financial Institutions, now occupied by Catherine Haberland. She is paid about $105,000 compared with about $77,000 for her predecessor Greg Reiman, a 36% increase.
Haberland held the same position under Doyle, according to an online resume. After leaving the Doyle administration, she was vice president of the World Council of Credit Unions for nine months and then worked as a consultant.
Reiman, a longtime Republican operative, was assistant deputy secretary since May 2017 and previously worked for Walker as a legislative aide and in his Milwaukee County executive office. Records show that while working for the county, Reiman was involved in a real estate discussion that came under legal scrutiny as part of a John Doe investigation into Walker’s office. No charges were filed.
In an interview Reiman said he was qualified for the job based on his years of working in the Legislature and county government. He was paid the same amount as his predecessor, Alex Ignatowski, the husband of Walker’s chief legal counsel.
When Evers announced his Cabinet picks earlier this year, supporters and some nonpartisan observers described the roster as having more gender and racial diversity than previous Cabinets — and including mostly career professionals, rather than people with partisan political backgrounds.
GOP legislative leaders criticized Evers’ Cabinet slate for being primarily from the state’s two biggest metro areas, Milwaukee and Madison.
Salaries for state officials are governed by the state compensation plan, which sets a salary range for unclassified positions such as the ones examined by the State Journal. Administration officials then may set the salary for each employee where they choose within that range.
The compensation plan is approved by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations.
Rank-and-file state workers saw a 2% wage increase in mid-2018 and another 2% boost at the start of 2019.
Steineke said the current labor market justifies regular pay increases to attract and retain top talent. But he said he would prefer an approach in which pay increases are more uniform.
“The more appropriate tack would be to have more modest increases but have them across the board,” Steineke said.