By Daniel Menefee

money stacksA proposal to raise judges’ salaries by $29,000 got a cool response from members of the House  Appropriations Committee, who must vote on it or let the raises take effect automatically in 50 days.

“I find it difficult to consider a salary increase for anyone in state government if not everyone in the state gets something,” said Del. Guy  Guzzone, D-Howard, in a typical reaction. “I would consider giving them what we’re giving any state worker.” CORRECTION: State employees are slated to receive a 2% increase in fiscal 2013.

Tuesday the Judicial Compensation Commission told the committee that raises are long overdue and current salaries for judges in Maryland deter high-paid private sector lawyers from applying for the jobs that pay $127,000 to $162,000.

Del. Keith Haynes, D-Baltimore City, said Wednesday that the talent pool was draining because of the low salaries. He said the increases were not unreasonable because judges have gone without raises since 2005.

He said judges who started then will have worked through half of their retirement eligibility of 16 years before getting raise.  Haynes also noted the salary increases don’t take effect until fiscal 2014.

Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, said she won’t support a pay increase when other public sector employees are forced to make so many sacrifices.

“The [Judicial Compensation Commission] panel failed to make their case in the face of a $1 billion budget shortfall, “Mizeur said.

Funding a core service of government

Del. Mary-Dulany James, D-Harford, one of the few lawyers on the Appropriations Committee, supports the increase in order to get the best talent on the bench. She acknowledged the high salary but said it was “funding a core service of government” and urged fellow lawmakers to see the increase as “spending on a service  to your constituents.”

Del. Nancy Stocksdale, R-Carroll, said the Judicial Compensation Commission spoke only of the salary issue and not the retirement benefits, which was the subject of a Senate hearing Wednesday. (See separate story.)

“I think the judges have a very good retirement,” Stocksdale said.

Maryland  judges can retire as early as age 60 with two-thirds pay of a current judge. They are also allowed to work as retired judges to supplement their income, Stocksdale pointed out. Retired judges can work 80 days a year and earn the full salary.

Stockdale also disputed the Judicial Compensation Commission’s claim that young lawyers make as much as $160,000, more than District and Circuit Court judges.  She said rural lawyers “do not make those kinds of salaries.”

She also did not sympathize with college tuition judges must pay to educate their children, a point made by the Judicial Compensation Commission on Tuesday.

“I sent my kids to college and I was a teacher,” Stocksdale said. “I didn’t make” the salary judges make.

Too high under current conditions

Del. Gail Bates, R-Howard, said the salary request was too high under current budget realities.

“The requests are grossly out of line with our fiscal situation and out of line with what state employees are able to get,” Bates said.

Del. John Wood, D-St. Mary’s, said the judges will likely “get something” but nothing close to the commission’s recommendations.

“Not in these times,” Wood said. He said it was difficult to approve the full increase when government employees have gone years without a raise.

The salaries of the part-time members of the Maryland General Assembly were frozen at  $43,500 since 2006 and they are not eligible for a raise until 2015.

“There shouldn’t be any increase,” said Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot in a visit to the State House press room after a Board of Public Works meeting. “The type of golden retirement pensions judges have is extraordinary. Maybe the governor has a better pension plan. Once they are a judge, they can retire in 16 years with two-thirds pay. They’re making more money than I am.”

The comptroller makes $125,000 per year, $2,000 less than a District Court judge.

Del. Tony McConkey, R-Anne Arundel, said the increase was not good timing for the current budget year.

“An increase at this time is too high,” McConkey said. “We will either drastically scale it back or deny the increase altogether.”