Pay raise bill signed

Wages set to rise next year for those caring for disabled

`Near-crisis situation'

Governor approves about 200 other bills, several about health

April 21, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Victorious after years of frustration, advocates for the developmentally disabled celebrated yesterday as Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed legislation that will raise the wages of an estimated 32,000 low-paid caregivers.

The legislation, which pledges $16 million annually toward improving salaries of community care workers starting next year, was one of a series of health and education measures the governor approved in his second round of bill-signings since the General Assembly session ended April 9.

For low-income older Marylanders, there was a measure creating a stopgap prescription drug program budgeted at $6.5 million for this year. For Southern Maryland farmers, there was a guarantee of payment to stop growing tobacco and switch to other crops. A tax amnesty is expected to raise enough money to provide $30 million to cover a deficit in health care for the mentally ill.

And for 10 very determined fifth-graders from Allegany and Calvert counties, there was a chance to pose for pictures with Glendening and legislative leaders as he signed a bill that passed on the strength of their lobbying -- a much-publicized measure making the calico cat the official state feline.

Of the more than 200 bills signed yesterday, few elicited as much passion as the legislation ensuring $16 million a year over the next five years to improve the compensation of the workers who attend to the personal needs of some of the most vulnerable and dependent people in the state. The targeted workers are not state employees, but people who work for organizations that contract with the state to provide such services.

Glendening agreed to support the bill late in the session after pressure from a broad coalition of legislators. Lawmakers agreed to delay the program's start until next year's budget.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, one of the leading backers of the legislation, said many of the nonprofit contractors who care for the developmentally disabled have staff vacancy rates of 30 percent to 40 percent because of low salaries.

"It was in a near-crisis situation, and this will definitely keep the employees that are there hanging on," the Charles County Democrat said. "It doesn't say the governor can or the governor may [put the money in the budget]. This says the governor has to."

Diane Macomb, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services, said advocates have been seeking to have similar legislation enacted since 1988. She said they twice got bills through the Assembly only to have them vetoed.

Macomb said she was delighted to see the bill become law, though she wishes the raises were coming this year. "To me, it's an indication that Maryland values this work force," she said.

Glendening praised the legislation putting a firm guarantee behind the state's tobacco farm buyout and providing money for crop conversion. He said the program, designed to end Maryland's history as a tobacco-growing state, has attracted 72 percent of the eligible farmers, representing 84 percent of the eligible crop.

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