Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a gubernatorial debate with Republican Scott Wagner in Hershey , Pa., Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. The debate is hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
I cover state government and basic and higher education policy. Reach me at JMurphy@pennlive.com or at 717-255-4106 or 717-255-4106.
Gov. Tom Wolf must have been in a double-digit mood after winning re-election to a second term.
After beating his GOP opponent Scott Wagner by 17 percentage points last fall, he gave nine of his mostly deputy-level staffers double-digit raises that ran as high as 36 percent. Those salary increases ranged from $25,000 to more than $33,000.
A spokesman for Wolf defended the increases as competitive with what senior-level staffers earn in the private sector and correspond to the responsibilities associated with their positions.
“The governor’s office is responsible for the functions of a 70,000-person, $80 billion organization that is the second largest employer in Pennsylvania,” said J.J. Abbott, Wolf’s press secretary. “These positions are some of the most high-level in state government, are responsible for overseeing the entire or specific work of multiple major state agencies.”
Further, Abbott said the staffers are expected to be on-call 24-7 “to make sure the functions of the government run smoothly. Changes were made to reflect fairness for their level of work and the compensation of their peers.”
Abbott saw his salary rise by $9,076, or 8 percent, in January to $125,008.
The size of raises the governor handed out to staffers was disturbing to Nathan Benefield, vice president of the conservative-leaning Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg.
“They seem very out of line with what the private sector is doing,” he said. “I don’t know that many workers have gotten 30 percent increases, much less $30,000 raises this year.”
He suggested raises in that range usually are associated with a big promotion, or reserved for achieving a big accomplishment. The only accomplishment Benefield could think of was that Wolf won re-election in November.
Abbott said the timing of the raises had to do with turnover in staff positions and when salary decisions were made, not the election.
The nine staffers that saw double-digit raises in December or January retained their same job titles.
Five deputy chiefs of staff – Yesenia Bane, Elena Cross, Eric Hagarty, Nicholas Soccio, and Sam Robinson – saw $32,137 increases, raising each of their salaries to $148,069, according to PennWATCH, the state government’s transparency website.
Three deputy press secretaries – Sara Goulet, Kevin Hensil and Lyndsay Kensinger – also received pay raises topping $25,000. Goulet and Hensil each received a $27,364 pay hike, boosting their salaries to $117,790; Kensinger saw her pay increase by $25,095, to $117,790.
Abbott said some of the increases were made to bring salaries “in-line with each other to ensure all were being paid equally and fairly for their work.”
The director of Wolf’s scheduling office didn’t just receive one raise after the governor’s re-election. She received two.
Betsy Phillips saw her salary increase by $1,467, to $93,203 in January. Then in February, she got her second raise of the year of $31,825, raising her salary to $125,028, or 36 percent higher than what she was earning at the end of last year.
Meanwhile, Andrea Mead, the chief of staff to Pennsylvania’s first lady Frances Wolf, received a pay boost similar in size to the one Abbott received. Her pay rose to $125,028, a $9,096 increase.
Seven of Wolf’s staffers were promoted to new positions, which led to their higher salaries.
Jen Swails was promoted from being fiscal management director for the state Department of Human Services to becoming the governor’s budget secretary. With that move, her pay rose $20,421, to $168,490, according to PennWATCH.
Michael Newsome left his position on the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, where he was earning $76,066, to become the governor’s administration secretary. His salary rose to $158,377, a 108-percent increase.
Others who were promoted include:
Nathanael Brague, who went from being an administrative officer to special assistant to the governor, garnering a $21,340 raise, to $81,272;
Andrew Barnes, who went from executive secretary for planning and policy to deputy secretary for planning and policy, resulting in a $4,930 pay increase, to $120,001;
Thomas Yablonski, moved from being director of boards and commissions to deputy secretary for intergovernmental affairs, which boosted his pay by $33,291 to $110,983;
Krystal Bonner, whose job title changed from director of digital communications and strategy to chief digital officer, raising her salary by $9,076, to $125,008; and
Darwin Paz, whose position changed from being digital strategist to deputy chief digital officer, increasing his salary by $25,428, to $81,487.
“It’s good speculation that if he can raise his own staff by double-digit increases, there’s probably a feeling that things are really good with the finances of the state and we can get big raises in the union contracts” either in salary increases or benefit enhancements – and those negotiations happen behind closed doors, he said.
“It’s frustrating for taxpayers to see [the governor offer pay] increases above what they’re seeing in the private sector and getting them on top of what is already a very generous benefit system,” he said. “The benefits in the public sector are greater than what we have in the private sector so it’s a double whammy on taxpayers who have to pay for it and aren’t seeing those types of benefits and salary increase themselves.”