By Daniel Menefee
The House of Delegates passed pay increases of up to $14,500 for Maryland judges Tuesday in an 84-47 vote. The delegates were convinced they were out of time to get the Senate to agree to a smaller increase of $4,800, before an automatic $29,000 raise took effect on Thursday.
“This is a ‘no-win’ scenario,” said Del. Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel. He said voting for or against the bill or an amendment would likely trigger a raise. The Senate last Wednesday passed a 3% increase for each of the next three years.
The Judicial Compensation Commission submits salary recommendations to the legislature every four years. The increases become automatic if lawmakers fail to modify or reject the increases within 50 days of the commission’s recommendations.
In a contentious floor debate, lawmakers pointed to a scenario in 2005 when the House and the Senate failed in the eleventh-hour to agree on smaller raises, triggering raises of up to $25,000 that took effect automatically.
‘Well thought out dance’
“This isn’t something that just happens,” said McMillan. “This same exact scenario took place in 2005. This is no accident. It’s planned this way, in my opinion, so we have these artificial deadlines because the Senate might not accept what we do. This is a well thought-out dance.”
McMillan said the House should accept an amendment offered by House Minority Leader Anthony O’Donnell to limit the pay raises to 1% — instead of the 3% approved by the Senate. O’Donnell’s amendment failed in a 49-83 vote.
“Let it be on their heads,” McMillan said.
McMillan said that one-third of state employees were making less than$ 40,000 while less than 6% make over $100,000. He said the raises were inappropriate when the state was projecting a $1 billion deficit.
“How are we going to pay for this?” McMillan asked.
The cost of the salaries will be $6.8 million annually, as opposed to $14 million if salaries of $29,000 had kicked in.
House Minority Whip Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio lamented that the House version of the bill never made it out of the Appropriations Committee to the House floor in an adequate amount of time to discuss the pay increases..
The committee heard testimony from the Judicial Compensation Commission on Feb. 7 but took no action and approved the Senate version Friday.
“The committee and the [House] has had ample time to look at this issue and take action on this,” Haddaway-Riccio said, but didn’t.
Mizeur says mistakes were made
Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, said she originally opposed the raise because she didn’t think “the judges did what they needed to do to make the case to get this raise.”
“Shame on me for not having done my homework to realize that this bill doesn’t act like all the others,” Mizeur said. “I wasn’t pushing and prodding to reject this raise because I was unaware of the [50-day] provision.”
Regardless of the mistake, Mizeur said the choice Tuesday was to gamble on the Senate rejecting further reductions and triggering the default salary increase of $29,000.
“If Senate rejects our approach, the budget problem becomes more complicated,” Mizeur said.
Judges could pay more for pensions
While the Senate gave judges half a loaf on their salary proposal, last Thursday the senators took some of it away by increasing their pension contributions from 6% to 8% of salary. The Judicial Compensation Commission had only recommended the increase for new judges.
AFSCME, the largest state employee union, had testified that all judges should pay more for retirement just as other state workers and teachers were forced to do last year. The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the full Senate supported that move unanimously.
Judges still have one of the most generous pensions in state government. They can receive two thirds of their salary after the age of 60 and just 16 years of service. They stop paying into the retirement system after 16 years, unlike other state workers who continue to contribute until they actually retire. Judges can also continue to serve on the bench part-time after they retire, and earn the other third of their salary.
Len Lazarick contributed to this report