Democracy ain't cheap

March 31, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

MARYLAND legislators are the last of the big-time spenders. After awarding themselves generous increases in salaries, expenses and pensions, they turned around and cut proposed raises for 60,000 other state employees.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer had asked for an across-the-board increase of 3 percent for state employees, their first pay raise in four years. But when the budget emerged from the Senate, the raise was cut to 2 percent or a flat $850, whichever is greater. The House version remains at the greater of 3 percent or $700.

But when lawmakers acted to increase the salaries and benefits of the next legislature, get a load of this: Salaries will increase by 3 percent in 1995 and again in 1996 with no increase in the final two years of the four-year cycle.

Legislators are now paid $28,000 a year. Salaries will increase to $28,840 in 1995 and to $29,705 in 1996. The president of the Senate and speaker of the House are each paid $10,000 more than members, and that will continue as the salary increases take effect.

The increases will cost the state an additional $180,000 in 1995 and $360,000 in 1996. Nobody ever said democracy in action comes cheap.

Lifestyles of the legislators will improve, too. Expenses for lodging, meals and travel will increase. Money for lodging and meals is currently capped at $102 a day, with a maximum of $40 a day for meals for which legislators must submit receipts.

However, under the new arrangement, lodging will be tied to the federal reimbursement rate, which in Annapolis is $76 a day. And beginning Jan. 1, legislators will be paid a flat $30 a day for meals, no receipts required, whether they eat or not.

That's tantamount to another back-door pay raise. In many cases, lawmakers will be able to pocket the food money and eat on the expense accounts of fat-cat lobbyists.

In addition, travel allowances for legislators within their districts will nearly double from $250 a year to $400 in gas money.

Comes now the sweetener. Legislators' pensions are presently calculated at 2.5 percent of their annual salary up to a maximum 60 percent of their earnings.

Under the new plan, pensions will be figured at 3 percent of the new higher salaries up to a maximum of two-thirds of their salaries. The new pension benefits will cost taxpayers $440,000 a year.

It's true, legislators can't increase their salaries during the four-year cycle they're in office but only at the beginning of a new term. So here's how the deal works:

Salary and pension levels are determined by a nine-member General Assembly Compensation Commission and recommended to the legislature. The General Assembly cannot increase the proposed salary and benefits but can reduce or reject the package. Not a peep was heard as the compensation package oozed through the Senate under the protective coloration of the budget.

There are two sticks of dynamite in the latest round of increases. The first is that higher salaries tend to isolate legislators from the real world. The second is that they are rapidly destroying the apple-pie concept of the citizen-legislator and creating in its place a new breed of professional lawmaker beholden to special interests.

In Maryland, those 188 jobs are becoming so good that many legislators no longer have or want to work for a living. To be sure, the legislature's workload has increased as the assembly has gradually gone to nearly a year-round calendar of committee meetings and summer-study seminars in addition to its annual 90-day meeting.

But the original concept of the citizen-legislator was to have as broad a cross-section of the populace as possible in legislative bodies -- a perpetual town hall meeting, if you will.

In theory, representatives rub elbows on the job, in the home and on the streets with the folks they represent. They are then able to express concerns in parliamentary bodies from what politicians like to call grass roots.

Today's high salaries have produced just the opposite results. Legislators at every level have become isolated from work-a-day problems of the people. They're becoming more responsive to the messages of special interests than those of the people they represent.

So the higher salaries also have set off a roundelay of unintended consequences: The better and more profitable the job of legislating becomes, the more full-time professionals we'll have in office and the longer the work will drag out. It used to be that legislators wanted to finish their work and go home. No longer. The harder they appear to work and the longer their work drags on, the higher their salaries will go and the more professional the legislature will become.

Money talks.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics.

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