Some legislators who gave back raises aren't sure the gesture was worth it

December 10, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Some state legislators who gave up their pay raises because they thought it was unfair to accept them at a time when raises for state employees were being denied, now say they are having second thoughts.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, for one, says he has stopped the monthly deduction that was sending his $5,000-a-year raise back into the state treasury. He said that his gesture was generally unappreciated and that the money might have a greater impact if it were donated to a charity, which he said he is considering.

"Nobody cares," he said. "Why should I be the only one to be punished? I gave it all back, but nobody really cared. If anybody cared, I'd give it back again now, but nobody cared."

Similarly, state Sen. Charles H. Smelser, D-Carroll, says he may discontinue the monthly deduction of half his $2,000-a-year pay raise because he is virtually certain his colleagues in the General Assembly are not going to cut state spending as deeply as he would like. Mr. Smelser said he does not want to donate his pay if it is only going to be spent on programs of which he disapproves.

"I'm for downsizing, but I don't know how many people feel the same as I do," he said. The decision on whether to discontinue the give-back, he said, "depends on what develops. If they don't make a concerted effort to my liking as far as reducing the budget, and if they start going to [raising] taxes, I intend to give mine to some worthwhile charity."

Legislative salary and expense reimbursement levels are recommended by an independent commission, then adopted by the General Assembly at the beginning of each four-year term. Once they are in place, they cannot be changed without an amendment to the state Constitution.

Beginning Jan. 1, legislators' salaries rose $2,000 from $25,000 to $27,000. Salaries for the two presiding officers, Mr. Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, rose from $32,000 to $37,000. In January 1993, they will go up again, to $28,000, for all legislators except the presiding officers, who will then make $38,000.

At the request of Mr. Mitchell and other legislators who for symbolic reasons, if nothing else, wanted to give back their automatic raises, the comptroller's office set up a special optional payroll deduction program. Currently, 14 of the 188 legislators are using the deduction option, according to Marvin Bond, a spokesman for Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein. He said his office is not permitted to disclose their names.

During the nine months the special deduction has been in effect, the legislators have returned $13,563, to the state, Mr. Bond said. But that is a drop in the bucket compared with the $1 billion-plus combined budget deficit the state faces over the next 18 months.

Mr. Mitchell said some lawmakers have told him that they resent giving their raises back to the state and would rather give to a soup kitchen or some other charity that helps the poor.

Others, he said, just "don't want the fanfare."

House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, gave back his full $2,000 increase, saying, "At the time, I didn't feel it was appropriate for me to take an increase when state employees weren't getting one. But I hasten to add that I was in a position that I could afford to do that. I have a job outside the legislature." Mr. Poole is a lawyer.

Approximately 50 of the 188 state lawmakers list no other occupation than legislator.

"I understand the Speaker's feelings," Mr. Poole said. "It's been real tempting to say, 'Forget it!' The general feeling is that people don't appreciate it, and it is quickly forgotten, and the critics go on to blast something else.

"There is real frustration in the Poole household over this," he said.

Sen. John W. Derr, R-Frederick, was among those who returned half the raise to the state, and he said nothing has happened since to change his mind.

"Since we're still in a budgetary crunch, I'm going to continue to donate it back to the state," he said, adding that he might even increase his contribution next month.

Senator Derr said he has "a bunch of kids in college, but [the deduction] is not killing us yet." In addition to his legislative salary, Mr. Derr works in an insurance agency and his wife has a full-time job at Hood College, he said.

"For right now, I still feel even though we know it is just a token, it is a small thing we can do," he said.

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