The General Assembly moved yesterday to kill a plan to give Maryland's judges significant salary increases next year, blaming the state's tight fiscal situation.
"We're not saying that they're not deserving, because they are deserving of higher salaries," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "It's a tough decision, but the timing with the budget just isn't right."
The House Appropriations Committee and two Senate committees -- Judicial Proceedings and Budget and Taxation -- voted yesterday to eliminate the salary increases recommended by the state's Judicial Compensation Commission.
Pay raises proposed by the commission automatically become law 50 days after they're introduced to the Senate and House unless both chambers approve resolutions rejecting them. This year's deadline is March 7, and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said the Assembly will easily meet that date to eliminate the salary increases.
"We were originally not planning to do anything" to oppose the raises, said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee. But Hoffman said the state's March revenue estimates may indicate a $200 million decline from earlier forecasts.
"We just can't do it," she said of the raises.
Under the judicial commission's proposal, the state's 274 judges would receive 5 percent salaries increases, effective Jan. 1. They also would be entitled to the 2 percent cost-of-living raises for all state employees in the governor's budget proposal.
A Circuit Court judge's salary would increase from $119,600 to $128,200, and a District Court judge's salary would go from $111,500 to $119,500. Court of Appeals and Court of Special Appeals judges also would receive 5 percent increases.
The salaries of a number of other positions -- including the state prosecutor, the public defender, members of the Workers' Compensation Committee and some local state's attorneys -- also would rise because they're tied to judicial pay increases.
The commission wants to increase pay to ensure Maryland attracts well-qualified judicial candidates. It hopes to tie the salaries of state judges to the federal judiciary, said former Sen. Laurence Levitan, who was chairman of the Judicial Compensation Commission.
Taylor said the salary proposal for judges could be rejected this year because the judiciary can come back any time to request raises. "The judges never asked for these raises," Taylor said. "It was the compensation commission that asked for it, not the judges."