January 5, 2010

Miller, Busch reject legislative pay hike

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch vowed on Tuesday to reject any raise for lawmakers, just hours after a state panel recommended a pay hike for 2013.

The General Assembly Compensation Commission recommended a $2,000 raise in 2013, hiking legislative salaries to $45,500 a year, but only if unemployment comes down to 5 percent in 2012.

But both presiding officers rejected the proposed raise in a statement.

“Any legislative consideration of a pay raise at a time when we are preparing to make more than $1 billion in cuts to the budget is inappropriate,” Miller said.

The General Assembly would have to formally vote on the recommendations to decline the pay increase.

“Now is not the time to accept pay raises for legislators,” Busch said. “We respectfully decline the salary recommendation of the commission.”

Three of the nine commissioners voted against the increase, favoring no raise at all in the next four years even though legislative pay has been frozen at $43,500 since 2006.

“We’re in absolutely unprecedented economic times,” said Thomas Lingan, an environmental lawyer with Venable in Baltimore, pointing to massive deficits and state employee furloughs. “I don’t know how in good conscience I can vote for any kind of pay raise.”

Even Jack Sprague, the former lobbyist who wanted to tie Assembly pay to the jobless rate, said he doubted such a decline would occur.

“Most economists would say we’re not going to get to 5 percent,” he said.

Sprague said he wanted to tie the raise to unemployment to make the legislators focus on jobs, business and tax incentives. Maryland unemployment is currently 7.2 percent, but it was under 5 percent for the last decade until November 2008.

“I think the goal is to get unemployment down, not raise salaries,” said Kathryn Higgins, a former deputy U.S. secretary of labor, who wanted to tie pay hikes to inflation.

Meeting for the third time in four weeks at the University of Maryland College Park, the commission spent much of two hours wrangling over whether and how much to raise salaries for the second-highest paid part-time legislature in the country. They formed a consensus that no raises would be granted in 2011 and 2012.

“I would hate to see them go eight years without an increase,” said Sprague. The notion that the legislators only work the 90 days of their official session is “patently untrue,” he said.

“It is not in the classic sense a part-time legislature,” Sprague said. “It is a job that requires you to be out there a lot.”

But Edward Gilliss, a Towson attorney and a recent president of the Maryland Bar Association, said the next compensation commission could raise the pay if they thought the legislative salary had slipped behind.

“There are more than just political reasons” not to give a raise, Gilliss said. “There is no inflation.” He voted against any increase.

Robert J. Antonetti Jr., a Prince George’s attorney who was the third vote against a raise, was concerned that retired legislators would get no pension increase, since their pensions are tied to the pay of current lawmakers. But the commission turned down his attempt to give retirees a cost-of-living boost, partly because they also saw their pensions go up from 2003 to 2006, when legislative pay went up 38 percent.

The commission did vote to give former members of the military credit for their service under the pension system, as other state employees receive, and they also voted to increase the in-district travel allowance from $500 to $650. All other benefits stay the same.

Under the process established in the Maryland Constitution in 1970, a compensation commission is appointed every four years. It includes five members named by the governor, and two each named by the House speaker and Senate president.

The commission is supposed to send its recommendations to the General Assembly by Jan. 29, where they would be introduced as a joint resolution. The legislature can accept the recommendations, reduce them, or reject them, but lawmakers cannot raise their own pay or benefits beyond what the commission recommends.

The commission members acknowledged that most legislators were not interested in a pay hike.

“In this political climate, they are not going to support a pay raise,” Higgins said.