Maryland lawmakers appear committed to approving large salary increases for themselves and other top elected officials this year, despite facing large revenue shortfalls and painful budget cuts.
The raises - some of which are set to become law as soon as tomorrow - could prove politically awkward for legislators facing re-election this fall.
They're already moving to vote down raises for judges, and most state employees are likely to receive no more than 2 percent cost-of-living increases.
"It's a difficult time to be doing this," says Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and the House majority leader.
"But with the General Assembly and the governor, you can only give raises once every four years, so this is the time we have to look at it."
Some leaders are considering crafting legislation that would give lawmakers political cover for the salary increases by enabling them to give back their raises - perhaps letting money be designated for public education.
Under the proposal before the Assembly, annual pay for senators and delegates would increase 38 percent over the next four years, from $31,509 to $43,500. Salaries for the Senate president and House speaker would rise from $41,509 to $56,500.
The governor's salary would increase from $120,000 to $150,000 over the next four years, and the lieutenant governor's salary would increase from $100,000 to $125,000.
The pay raises for both positions are 25 percent, and the Assembly also is considering a separate measure to boost the pensions for past governors - a move that would provide the most retirement help to former Gov. Marvin Mandel of the three still living.
The salary increases would take effect in January, because elected officials may receive raises under the Maryland Constitution only at the start of a new term, once every four years.
Unlike other legislation, lawmakers won't actually have to take a vote on either set of pay raises, under a provision set in 1970.
The raises - recommended by independent commissions appointed by the governor and Assembly leadership - automatically become law if the Assembly doesn't take action.
To reduce or reject the raises, both chambers would have to approve identical resolutions, as they are doing this week to reject 5 percent pay raises for judges.
Not automatic raises
Prospects for salary increases for the treasurer, comptroller, attorney general and secretary of state are unclear.
Unlike the pay raises that take effect automatically, those salary increases are a separate measure that must be approved by the Assembly, and legislative leaders don't appear to be united behind them.
The salary increases for the governor and lieutenant governor are set to become law tomorrow - 50 days from the time the proposal was introduced to the House and Senate.
The Assembly has until the end of the session to make changes to the raises for delegates and senators.
Many legislative leaders say the pay raises are deserved, noting that their jobs have become more time-consuming and it's been 12 years since the last significant salary increase.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, the commission has generally recommended salary increases of $1,000, and the pay for delegates and senators was bumped to $27,000 in 1990.
"We are called a part-time legislature, but it's everything else but part time," says Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat and Senate majority leader. "Government has become more complex."
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, says the 90-day commitment is making it more difficult for younger legislators to find and hold jobs - noting that fewer companies are willing to give up employees for three months to the Assembly.
"If we don't do it now, it will be 16 years between raises, and I think that's outrageous," says Hoffman, who points out that Baltimore City Council members are paid $48,000 per year.
But Republican legislators are questioning whether this is an appropriate year for accepting raises - particularly given Maryland's tight budget situation and the lack of substantial pay raises for other employees.
The governor's budget has set aside money for 2 percent cost-of-living increases.
"I don't think we can give pay raises this year," says Del. Robert L. Flanagan of Howard County, the House Appropriations Committee's ranking Republican.
"The rank-and-file employees are getting cost-of-living raises, at best, and we have to make the decision as leadership that now is not the time for us to give ourselves big raises."
House and Senate Republicans have introduced resolutions to reject the recommended Assembly pay increases. None has been scheduled for a hearing.
"I would be very surprised if they were brought to a vote," says Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican and the Senate minority leader. "It's all underground.
"The pay raises aren't something the leadership wants to talk about."