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Arkansas legislative committee endorses salary hikes for 4 department heads, others

by Michael R. Wickline | January 24, 2023 at 12:09 p.m.
The Arkansas Capitol is shown in this 2015 file photo. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

The Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday signed off on larger salaries for four department secretaries and two deputy directors at the state Department of Human Services. 

The panel also increased pay ranges for five of the governor’s staffers.

These actions came without any debate or any questions from lawmakers.

The budget committee’s personnel subcommittee on Thursday recommended that the budget committee approve these changes requested by Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ administration.

The committee approved salaries for four department secretaries that exceeded the maximum salary of $201,700 set for those positions. State law permits the governor’s office to pay agency directors up to 50% more than the maximum pay level after receiving the approval of the Joint Budget Committee.

The annual salaries are as follows for the following secretaries:

• $250,000 for Jacob Oliva, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Education. State records show Oliva’s predecessor, Johnny Key, had a salary of $239,361 a year.

• $225,000 for Kristi Putnam, secretary of the Department of Human Services. That’s $23,300 more than the annual salary of former Secretary Mark White, who served under former Gov. Asa Hutchinson and is now the department’s chief of staff. Cindy Gillespie, who served as secretary under Hutchinson until October, had a salary of $287,042 a year, according to the state’s transparency website.

• $225,000 for Hugh McDonald, secretary of the state Department of Commerce. Mike Preston, former head of the department, had a state-paid annual salary of $168,047 a year. The state’s personnel administrator Kay Barnhill noted Thursday that Preston received a roughly $50,000-a-year privately-financed bonus because he also served as the director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. McDonald will not hold the director position, Barnhill said.

• $210,000 for Joe Profiri, secretary of the state Department of Corrections. Solomon Graves, who held the position under Hutchinson, received a salary of $170,276 a year, according to the state’s transparency website.

The secretary salaries requested by Sanders’ office were competitive with salaries paid in neighboring states, Barnhill said Thursday. She noted a study conducted by the state Office of Personnel Management which found that several state positions were running at least 20% under the market for similar jobs.

The Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday also approved allowing Sanders’ office to establish new classifications for chief of staff, two deputy chief of staff positions, public affairs director and chief legal counsel. To offset the new classifications, the governor’s office said five other positions would remain vacant and would be eliminated during the biennial budget process.

The classifications allow for a salary range of $149,862 to $181,500 for the governor’s chief of staff and $134,406 to $167,000 for the deputy chief of staff, public affairs director and chief legal counsel positions.

Afterward, personnel subcommittee Co-chairwoman Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, said she didn’t specifically ask what the salaries for these governor’s office employees would be.

“But that’s all public and it will be on the [Arkansas Transparency] website,” she said.

“What we know is that, even though they are adding five positions, the overall budget will be less than it was, so they are not growing the size of the budget. They actually will come under budget,” Davis said.

The salary for Gretchen Conger, Sanders’ chief of staff, is $160,000 a year, Department of Transformation and Shared Services spokeswoman Alex Johnston said afterward. The salary for Hutchinson’s former chief of staff was $146,556 a year, according to the Arkansas Transparency website.

The annual salaries for the governor’s chief legal counsel Andrew Ritchie, the governor’s public affairs director Jordan Powell, and Judd Deere and Kelly Eichler, Sanders’ deputy chiefs of staff, are each $150,000 a year, Johnston said.

Sanders’ office will eliminate two management specialist positions with salary ranges of $50,222 to $72,821, one administrative assistant position with a salary range of $40,340 to $58,493 and two other administrative assistant positions with salary ranges of $36,155 to $52,424, according to documentation provided to the personnel subcommittee.

The Joint Budget Committee also granted a request from Putnam to set salaries for two deputy director positions at the Department of Human Services at $172,000, which exceeds the maximum salary range for the posts. The standard salary range for these positions is $134,406 to $167,000, according to the subcommittee’s agenda.

The approval of these salary changes are retroactive to Jan. 11.


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