Governor to support caregiver pay raise

$80 million initiative could start next year

March 28, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has agreed to support a five-year, $80 million initiative to raise the salaries of low-paid workers who care for the developmentally disabled, a leading legislator said yesterday.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the governor told her he would back legislation calling for the state to spend $16 million a year on the salary initiative -- starting in next year's budget.

The Baltimore Democrat said there will be no additional spending for that purpose in the supplement to this year's budget expected to be announced today.

Michael Morrill, a spokesman for Glendening, would neither confirm nor deny the senator's account. He said the governor has been meeting with legislators to discuss spending for several health-care needs, including the salaries of people who work for nonprofit contractors caring for the disabled.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, sponsor of the Senate bill, said he was "happy as a lark" after being told by Hoffman of the governor's commitment.

"That was the most important thing to me in the legislative session," the Southern Maryland Democrat said. "I told that to the governor several times."

Advocates for the disabled have been complaining for years that treatment has been compromised by the meager salaries paid to care providers.

Diane T. Macomb, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services, said the 105 community agencies that provide such services have been having serious difficulty finding people to work for salaries that average less than $8 an hour. She said some agencies have been forced to close because they can't find workers.

Macomb said about 32,000 workers feed, bathe, dress and provide other services to about 21,000 people with such disabilities as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism and severe epilepsy.

Macomb said about 85 percent of that work force are minorities and that 75 percent are women -- many of them single mothers. She said advocates for the disabled hope to increase caregiver pay to an average of $12 an hour over the next six years.

The legislation launching the initiative to raise caregiver pay had broad bipartisan support in the General Assembly. The House bill, introduced by Del. Joan Pitkin, had almost 130 sponsors; 38 co-sponsors signed on to legislation in the 47-member Senate.

Despite the support, the bills had been languishing because of concerns about the initiative's cost. As recently as Monday, concern was expressed that the House Appropriations Committee would not act on the measure.

The panel's inaction prompted House Republicans to launch an effort to petition the bill to the floor, starting with their 35 signatures. They issued a news release challenging the Democratic leadership to round up the 12 additional signatures needed.

Macomb praised the GOP action, saying it may have helped bring action.

"They raised the ante," she said. "I think they said to leadership, `We really want this to happen.'"

But Middleton said the Republican move had little effect because the governor's decision has been in the works for weeks.

The care providers' salary issue is one of several difficult questions surrounding health care that must be resolved in the two weeks remaining in the legislative session. Another involves an estimated $42 million shortage in the state's mental health care programs.

Hoffman said there will be money in the supplemental budget to address that problem, but would not disclose the amount.

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