Two Cabinet members in Lujan Grisham's administration step down

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Jul. 1—Two key members of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's Cabinet are stepping down.

Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins, who has served in the governor's administration for eight months, and John Salazar, who has served as Cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Department of Information Technology for just over a year, are both leaving at the end of July.

Collins is returning to academic life, and Salazar is resigning to help care for his family.

The two resignations come less than three months after another Cabinet secretary, Bill McCamley, stepped down from the Department of Workforce Solutions, citing safety and security concerns.

But the governor's chief spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, said Thursday the departures don't destabilize state government.

"You're never happy to see someone go, especially folks who have done great work. But that said, we'll just keep doing the work every day," he said.

"The bench is deep, and there are very talented people at state agencies whose names you don't know, whose names I don't even know in every situation, and we don't lose a step," Stelnicki added.

The Governor's Office said Collins accepted Lujan Grisham's request to lead the Department of Health last fall with the understanding she might return to her academic work after "operationalizing and overseeing the agency's COVID-19 vaccination efforts."

"Although it's time for me to return to my academic career, I look forward to continuing to work hand in hand with the governor and her administration to enhance public health throughout our state," Collins said in a statement.

Collins worked at the University of New Mexico as dean of the College of Population Health before joining Lujan Grisham's administration.

In December, Collins told The New Mexican "the idea of making a difference at a historic time" drew her to the job.

"I felt this was my opportunity to give back to the state," she said at the time.

In her statement Thursday, Collins said she was grateful to her colleagues at the Department of Health and to the governor "for her faith in me."

"Our partnership has been the foundation of an incredibly successful vaccination drive," Collins said. "I'm proud of the work we've done to protect New Mexicans, especially with our emphasis on equity and reaching underserved populations."

The Governor's Office said Human Services Secretary David Scrase will step in to lead the Department of Health, in addition to the Human Services Department.

"Scrase's leadership has been an integral part of the state's comprehensive COVID-19 response, and there remains significant overlap between the two agencies' missions," a news release states.

Salazar wrote in his resignation letter that he decided to part ways "after much deliberation." His wife recently fractured her leg, "which left her immobilized and requiring extensive assistance to perform normal daily actives," he wrote.

"Prior to her accident, my wife served as the primary caretaker for both of our elderly mothers," Salazar wrote. "She also cared for our two grandchildren. We were recently told that the healing process for the fracture will require four to six months. My wife's health condition and impact on our family is the reason for my decision to resume my retirement. My new role will be nursing my wife through the recovery process and assisting with the care of our mothers and grandchildren."

Salazar, who has served as chief information officer at the state departments of Workforce Solutions and Taxation and Revenue, thanked his "fellow team members" at the information and technology department "who work tirelessly to keep the state's computing infrastructure and public safety radio communications systems operational." He wrote that they work around the clock year-round "and give their all to ensure systems, services and facilities are operational."

"This past year with the COVID Pandemic, [Department of Information and Technology] personnel acted quickly to configure and deploy services and products to allow 17,000 employees to work from home," he wrote. "This is just one of the many successful accomplishments realized over the course of my tenure."

Salazar's looming departure also comes as the state of New Mexico embarks on an effort to create an Office of Broadband Access and Expansion to coordinate broadband projects among state and tribal governments and internet service providers. The push to improve broadband access and capability comes after a 2019 Legislative Finance Committee report found that New Mexico lags behind the rest of the nation in broadband connectivity.

"State and federal investments totaling over $300 million have succeeded in connecting schools, hospitals, and other institutions, but the costs of infrastructure are high and many rural areas remain unserved," the report stated. "The state's efforts at coordinating among a wide array of stakeholders have lacked a strong structure, continuity, and accountability."

Salazar recently told a legislative panel that investments of $1 billion are likely needed to modernize infrastructure.

Last year, Salazar told the Legislature's Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee that broadband was as important as electricity and running water.

While Scrase, the human services secretary, will oversee the Department of Health while the state conducts a search for a new health secretary, it's unclear who will replace Salazar.

"Our office will have a formal announcement that will include more information when we decide to make it," Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor's press secretary, wrote in an email.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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