Signaling a potential rift in what has been a close relationship, state employees are denouncing Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposals to give workers only a 2 percent pay raise and to have them pay more for health insurance.
Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 35,000 state workers, held a rally outside the State House yesterday and warned that the governor's proposed budget would be disastrous for their families.
"We feel like it is an assault on the work force in this state," said Sally Davies, president of AFSCME Council 92.
Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill said the state's revenue shortfall left the governor with few options. He noted that Maryland is in better shape than other states that are beginning to lay off employees.
The governor and AFSCME have been political allies for most of his tenure. Glendening led the effort to grant collective bargaining rights to state employees, and he has been a strong advocate for union issues.
But AFSCME representatives said that close relationship could be tarnished by his proposed budget.
"It's not over yet, but we are going to have to wait and see what happens," said Sue Esty, AFSCME's legislative director.
Davies said the proposed 2 percent cost of living raise is too low and should be 3 percent or 4 percent. Several other states, such as Pennsylvania and New York, are providing workers a 3.5 percent increase, she said.
It also is unfair to ask state workers to pay for more of the cost of their health insurance and prescription drug premiums, union officials said. Currently, employees pay 15 to 20 percent of their health insurance premiums and 20 percent of their prescription drug plan payments.
Under the proposed changes, a family of three would have to pay between $350 and $575 a year - an increase of up to 33 percent - for their health insurance. The same family would see the cost of prescription drug benefits increase by $320, union officials said.
Ron Bailey, a retired correctional officer who attended the rally, said a 2 percent raise, which would cost the state about $25 million, is not enough to make up for the extra health care costs. "Many of us live from paycheck to paycheck, counting every dime," Bailey said.
AFSCME and the state are currently engaged in a collective bargaining session that, when finished, could change the governor's proposal. But the administration's flexibility appears limited.
Morrill called the employees' health insurance options "a terrific set of benefits" and said workers need to be aware of the tight economic conditions.
The governor of Illinois recently announced that his state would have to lay off thousands of workers to balance the budget. Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner recently said that state, too, might have to resort to layoffs to balance the budget. The governor of New Jersey laid off 600 workers last week.
"Given the circumstances, we have protected the workers of Maryland," Morrill said.
Although there are no plans for layoffs, a hiring freeze ordered by Glendening in October remains in effect.
Corina Eckl, fiscal program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said governors across the country are facing tough decisions.
"For fiscal year 2002, it certainly has been a problem for states," Eckl said. "But we are hearing from our members 2003 promises to be even worse."