Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has offered some big salaries to former Secretary of State’s Office staffers. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Top aides benefit as Kemp shuffles pay structure in governor’s office

New Gov. Brian Kemp didn’t scrimp on state salaries when he put together his senior staff, paying many of his top aides more than officials in his predecessor’s administration who had served eight years on the job.

He stocked the office with eight aides who once worked for him while he was secretary of state, often giving them hefty raises to move a few doors down to the governor’s suite. And he split up some jobs that were performed by one staffer under Gov. Nathan Deal while creating a new outreach office.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that six of Kemp’s staffers earn at least $190,000 a year — more than the governor’s $175,000 salary.

The sharp salary increases come as Kemp and top legislative leaders try to balance his campaign promises with growing budget demands. His $27.5 billion spending plan includes a $3,000 raise for public school teachers — he vows to give them an additional bump of $2,000 later — and a 2 percent pay hike for state employees.

And leaders are facing new pressure from thousands of former state workers who stopped receiving cost-of-living adjustments through the Employees Retirement System a decade ago.

Kemp’s office said he is squeezing more efficiency from his staff by combining other roles with a smaller overall footprint. His office’s total salaries for 33 staffers was roughly $2.9 million — slightly smaller than the $3 million personnel budget for Deal’s employees in 2011, when he became governor.

“Drawing on his private-sector and government experience, Governor Kemp is doing more with less,” said Candice Broce, a Kemp spokeswoman. “Kemp reduced spending, combined jobs, and hired the best and brightest to serve on his staff.”

The lucrative pay hikes have opened him up to criticism. Charlie Flemming, the president of the AFL-CIO labor union’s Georgia chapter, questions why Kemp’s administration doesn’t “share this wealth and this love with the state employees.”

“They’re only getting 2 percent, and these guys are getting much more,” Flemming said. “I know they’re going to say they’ve got to do this to keep talent — politicians always say that — but at the end of the day, it’s the workers that make the state run.”

Unlike pay hikes for a range of public positions, such as salaries for judges or state law enforcement officers, the raises in Kemp’s office don’t require approval from lawmakers and come with no oversight from the legislative branch.

The executive branch gets to dictate pay and hash out roles for top employees, though lawmakers control the purse strings for the overall budget. In some cases, the 2019 pay for top executives will rise even higher. The figures don’t include added income, performance pay and other bonuses that aren’t distributed until the end of the fiscal year in July.

The comparisons between the Deal and Kemp administrations are imprecise, given the frequent turnover and title changes. Deal’s top aide, Chris Riley, and his budget director, Teresa MacCartney, each filled more than one role for several years. Those positions are now each held by two or more people in the Kemp administration.

Deal’s office also offered significant raises in his final years in office to retain longtime employees who were being wooed to work in the private sector. Kemp’s office took those higher salaries and used them as a starting point to pay his senior staffers.

The highest salary was paid to MacCartney, whose salary grew from $176,000 in 2016 to $225,000 in 2018 when she was serving as both the budget director and chief financial officer. The new budget director, Patrick Farr, is starting at $225,000, and Greg Dozier, Kemp’s pick as chief financial officer, is making $190,000.

The same standard applied to Kemp’s top aide, Tim Fleming, who is making $200,000 a year — the same salary Riley was being paid when he left office. Riley’s pay rose more than $60,000 over two years while he held down several jobs that became vacant during Deal’s final months in office.

And David Dove, Kemp’s executive counsel, will make $190,000. That’s more than twice what he made in 2017 as head of business operations in the Secretary of State’s Office, according to the state pay website Open Georgia, and $40,000 more than his predecessor under Deal was paid.

Another sizable raise was given to Lorrie Smith, Kemp’s new chief operating officer. She made $120,000 working as his assistant deputy in the Secretary of State’s Office in fiscal 2018, and now she is making $190,000 as chief operating officer. The last chief operating officer under Deal made about $137,000 a year before he was promoted to a different role in 2016.

The Kemp administration has also created some high-ranking posts that didn’t exist under previous governors. For instance, records show Martha Zoller, a former political talk-show host who worked for U.S. Sen. David Perdue, is set to make $95,000 a year to serve as Kemp’s director of state regional offices.

Several of his top advisers, including Jeremy Brand, Ryan Mahoney and Jared Thomas, have stayed in the private sector, taking positions with lobbying shops or consultancy firms that will leverage their ties to the governor. But a range of other former aides and ex-campaign hands have filled senior roles and lower-profile jobs.

“All governors need to surround themselves with people they feel comfortable with and bring something to the table they need,” said Eric Tanenblatt, who served as Gov. Sonny Perdue’s first chief of staff in 2003. “Clearly he has confidence in them and they are his team.”

Perdue came from the state Senate and didn’t have a built-in pool of staffers when he was elected the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. But in a way, his team decentralized and professionalized the office by creating corporatelike positions to run the state that are in place today.

Still, they stuck to a tradition that both Kemp and Deal veered from.

“When we were in the governor’s office, we knew what the governor was paid, and we weren’t going to pay anyone more than the governor,” Tanenblatt said.

Tanenblatt called the pay scale — which Kemp has elevated — a long-standing challenge in state government. State staffers often say they take lower-than-market salaries, either for the guarantee of a pension or as part of short-term government service.

“That is part of serving in government,” Tanenblatt said. “You are not doing it to make money, you are serving.”

State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, recalled the sharp criticism around the big pay hikes that Deal gave to his top staffers after the 2014 election. But, she said, at least they had “proven their value” to the state.

“I have no doubt these are good people who will work hard,” Jordan said of Kemp’s hires. “But it makes no sense that they can go in, on Day One, and make more than Governor Kemp. If they have the value they say they have, they need to prove it.”

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