Governor's salary: too hot to handle?

December 28, 1993

What salary should Maryland's next governor receive? That's a topic politicians in Annapolis, with their eyes on the 1994 elections, would rather avoid. But they will have to face up to this hot controversy next month, like it or not.

A seven-member commission, head by Baltimore attorney George L. Russell, will make a recommendation early next month to the legislature on a compensation scale for the governor. Under the state constitution, lawmakers must either accept the commission figures or adopt lower ones. Taking no action endorses the commission's plan.

Given the public's anger at government these days, a large salary increase for the governor would set off a campaign eruption ideal for demagogic candidates. Yet for a chief executive officer of a $12 billion operation with over 70,000 employees, Maryland's $120,000 annual figure is out of sync.

From a political standpoint, holding down the governor's salary makes sense. It would avoid an embarrassing election-year issue for incumbents. But the panel may not see it that way. Unless the governor receives a salary increase, a number of cabinet-level officials in a few years will earn more than their boss, thanks to cost of living raises. Some college presidents and medical academics earn more than the governor, too. Besides, the governor's salary can only be raised once every four years. If there is no action next year, the governor's pay will be frozen until 1998.

Conservatives argue that Maryland's governor is the fourth highest-paid chief executive in the country (behind New Jersey, New York, Washington state and tied with California). State workers haven't received any across-the-board pay raises during the recession and feel the governor shouldn't get a pay boost, either. Many Marylanders, looking at their own pay stubs, feel that $120,000 a year is more than adequate -- especially for someone who gets a mansion to live in, a car and driver and 24-hour protection.

Yet a governor bears heavy responsibilities. The well-being of millions of Marylander rest in his hands. Running a state is a lot trickier than running a Fortune 500 enterprise.

Is our governor worth more than $120,000 a year? The emotional response is no, but a pragmatic answer could well be yes. Public service involves a personal sacrifice for elected officeholders, and the Russell commission will determine how big that sacrifice should be. Given the tenor of the times and the state's weak revenue outlook, any proposed salary increase for the governor ought to be modest -- enough to offset inflation. The smaller the recommended increase, the happier legislators will be.

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