Judge rules Ehrlich can omit union raises

Departing Md. governor cannot compel spending of incoming replacement

October 18, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was within his rights in ignoring the 2 percent state employee pay raises negotiated by departing Gov. Parris N. Glendening, an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday in a decision that left both sides claiming victory.

The state's largest employees union sued Ehrlich in April, claiming that salary and step increases for its 27,000 members approved by Glendening were binding for the new governor and should have been included in the budget Ehrlich submitted in January.

While Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Michael E. Loney determined that the union contract was valid, he found that a departing governor cannot compel spending by his or her incoming replacement.

"A governor whose term is ending may agree to the economic terms of a [memorandum of understanding], but a governor-elect has the sole authority to prepare and submit a final budget to the General Assembly," Loney's ruling said.

State Department of Budget and Management Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. called the decision "a major victory for the governor and the state of Maryland."

Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch, who defended the case on Ehrlich's behalf, said the state won on the most important components.

"This would have been a catastrophe, had the court ordered us to come up with $100 million" for the raises, Zarnoch said. "In my mind, that was the big issue in the case."

But leaders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92 said the decision offered good news.

The court ruled that the agreements signed by Glendening and the unions are binding contracts. And although money for raises won't be coming, noneconomic components of the pacts should be followed.

"It's a tremendous advance for state employees, and the collective bargaining law has been upheld," said Sally Davies, president of Council 92. "We feel very good that the courts have affirmed we have a valid agreement."

Nonmonetary parts of the contract include such items as labor-management meetings on health and safety issues, which have not been held during the dispute.

Davies said she was not sure whether the union would appeal the decision.

"We want to sit down now with the governor and have a constructive dialogue on this, instead of litigating," she said.

DiPaula said that the administration has wanted a dialogue all along. He noted that two bargaining groups -- airport firefighters and public safety workers -- previously agreed to renegotiate their deals, keeping noneconomic components largely intact.

The case was considered an important first test of the state's collective bargaining laws governing state employees, passed in 1999 as a priority of Glendening, a staunch labor advocate.

Regardless of whether Ehrlich included the money for raises in his budget, the General Assembly has the power to cut, and state employees have not had salary increases in two years, a time of revenue shortfalls.

Ehrlich has recently said he wants to provide money for raises in his next budget, which will take effect in July.

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