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Wisconsin Spotlight | Jan. 27, 2021

MADISON —While many Wisconsinites struggle financially in the pandemic economy, Gov. Tony Evers’ cabinet secretaries are doing quite well.

In fact, four members of Evers’ leadership team have maxed out on their raises. They legally can’t make any more. If they did, they would be raking in as much as the governor.

They got to the ceiling fast, thanks to very generous taxpayer-funded raises Evers gave out as he began his term in January 2019.

According to administration salary information obtained by Empower Wisconsin through an open records request, Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan, Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr, and Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole are pulling down $152,755 a year.

That’s a dollar a year less than the $152,756 Evers annually takes home.

Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm, who last week announced she is leaving the administration to take a post in the Biden administration, also was in the cabinet’s top earners club.

The four cabinet members make $73.44 an hour.

Brennan has made the top rate since taking the DOA post. The others received small pay adjustments over the past year or two to get them to the maximum.

A note on the salary spreadsheet declares the secretaries are “Ineligible for pay increases due to requirement to be paid less than the governor.” Under state law, constitutional officers cannot receive raises during their terms. Increases are set for the following term. Evers and the other constitutional officers received a 4 percent bump in salary upon beginning their terms. 

In total, six cabinet members are making $150,000 a year or better, including Secretary of Transportation Craig Thompson, at $150,904, and Revenue Secretary Peter Barca, at $150,883.

Keep in mind, the median household income in Wisconsin is slightly over $64,000 a year. Evers’ leadership team are making 2 to 2 1/2 times more than Wisconsin households are earning.

Roughly a third of full-time workers have taken a pay cut during the pandemic, according to a recent survey. 

Double-digit raises 

Most secretaries have received 2 percent pay increases in each of the past two years. The Legislature approved the increases in late 2019.

But many of Evers’ cabinet members had benefited early on from double-digit pay increases at the beginning of the Democrat’s term, the MacIver Institute first reported in February 2019. Eleven received pay hikes of 10 percent or better, earning significantly higher salaries than their predecessors in the Walker administration, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported at the time. 

Kathy Blumenfeld, secretary of Financial Institutions received a 16 percent salary increase, the biggest raise among Evers’ leadership team. Brennan, Barca and former Tourism Secretary Sara Meaney each got 14 percent pay hikes.

Meaney left the administration in November to become chief marketing and communications officer for a Milwaukee health nonprofit. Her critics say Meaney had no real tourism experience before joining the Evers administration, so it is no surprise she joins a health organization without having worked in that sector. Still, Meaney came into the tourism post making $16,000 more a year than her much more experienced predecessor, Stephanie Klett.

The Department of Administration did not include Meaney’s 2020 salary in the records release. The documents do note the salary of Ann Sayers, Meaney’s deputy secretary who is serving as acting tourism chief. After a 2 percent raise, Sayers salary hit $115,502.

DOA’s records also do not include salary information for former Department of Workforce Secretary Caleb Frostman. Evers asked Frostman to resign in September after the dysfunctional agency failed to clear a backlog of tens of thousands of Unemployment Insurance claims in anything remotely close to a timely fashion.

Wisconsin Spotlight did obtain Frostman’s salary information as of December 2019 through a separate open records request. At that time, the secretary was earning about $140,000 a year. At a 2 percent raise, Frostman would have been bringing home a salary of about $142,800 before his exit.

Evers’ cabinet secretaries and their top lieutenants are pulling in a combined $4.7 million annually, according to the records. That includes Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, Adjutant General of the Wisconsin National Guard and two of his top deputies. Knapp’s salary, paid for through state and federal funds, is $150,000 annually.

Significantly higher 

Evers’ hefty raises helped his cabinet secretaries earn significantly more than his predecessor’s top management team.

Brennan, the DOA secretary, for instance, is making 21 percent more than Gov. Scott Walker’s Administration chief, Michael Huebsch made in the third year of Walker’s term— or about $26,000 more a year, according to state salary archives.

Palm, the DHS secretary, was earning 23 percent more than Walker’s health director, Kitty Rhoades, or about $29,000 more per year.

The highest pay increase, by comparison, goes to Blumenfeld, Evers’ Financial Services Secretary, who is making 26 percent more than Walker’s secretary at the time, Peter Bildsten.

In fact, Empower Wisconsin’s review shows nine of Evers’ cabinet members are taking home salaries of 20 percent or higher than their peers under Walker.

Their deputies have done well, too.

DOA Deputy Secretary Christopher Patton is making $62.48 per hour, or about $130,000 per year.

Former Department of Corrections Amy Pechacek was paid $62.69 an hour, or north $130,000 annually. Evers appointed Pechacek DWD Secretary-designee late last month after she took over operations following Frostman’s departure. The payroll documents do not include her salary for her new role.

Several members of Evers’ leadership team have been criticized for their performance.

The Republican-controlled Senate, lawmakers said, was poised to reject Palm’s confirmation two years after her appointment because of her lack of cooperation with the Legislature, her disregard for the law and the constitution, and her failure in the administration’s botched rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.

And what of Kevin Carr’s leadership at the Department of Corrections? Evers heavily campaigned on the failures of the state’s juvenile justice system, particularly on replacing Wisconsin’s youth prisons in northern Wisconsin — Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. More than two years into his term, the system is a long way from being fixed.

Department Walker Appointee Hourly Rate Evers Appointee Hourly Rate %change
Administration Michael Huebsch $60.71 Joel Brennan $73.44 20.97%
Ag Ben Brancel $58.05 Randall Romanski $63.75 9.82%
Children and Families Eloise Anderson $59.02 Emilie Amundson $67.54 14.45%
Insurance Ted Nickel $56.84 Mark Afable $65.03 14.41%
Corrections Edward Wall Jr. $60.47 Kevin Carr $73.44 21.46%
Financial Institutions Peter Bildsten $53.69 Kathy Blumenfeld $67.54 25.79%
Health Services Kitty Rhoades $59.56 Andrea Palm $73.44 23.30%
Military Affairs Donald Dunbar $60.11 Paul Knapp* $72.12 19.99%
Natural Resources Cathy Stepp $60.47 Preston Cole $73.44 21.46%
Revenue Rick Chandler $58.29 Peter Barca $72.54 24.45%
Safety & Professional Services David Ross $53.45 Dawn Crim $65.03 21.66%
Tourism Stephanie Klett $52.24 Anne Sayers $55.53 6.29%
Transportation Mark Gottlieb $60.46 Craig Thompson $72.55 19.99%
Veterans Affairs John Scocos $59.26 Mary Kolar $65.03 9.74%

Source: State of Wisconsin payroll records: http://openbook.wi.gov/Uploads/State_of_WI_2013_Payroll_Data.pdf

*Salary is fixed, includes federal

**DWD not includes because of Frostman resignation

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