Salary cuts for state's lawmakers floated

Senator offers bill to change process of setting legislators' pay

January 24, 2008|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

The budget cuts in the General Assembly in the past year have had a long reach, with hundreds of millions in reductions to planned state spending on everything from education to public libraries.

One area where the ax didn't fall? The salaries of legislators, which range from $43,500 a year to $56,500, for a 90-day session.

Annapolis lawmakers had good reason for not cutting their salaries during the special legislative session in November, when they raised taxes by $1.3 billion.

It's against the law.

But Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican, believes the system for determining legislators' pay - which was designed to largely remove the politically tricky decision from legislators' hands - is due for a change.

"If we're in a financial crisis and we ask the people of Maryland to sacrifice, our own salaries shouldn't be exempt from that process," Simonaire told members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee yesterday.

According to a process established in 1970, legislative pay can change only every four years at the recommendation of the General Assembly Compensation Commission, a nine-member panel appointed by the governor, speaker of the House of Delegates and Senate president.

Simonaire said he is not trying to reduce salaries, just to make it possible to reduce them if the General Assembly sees the need.

That has never happened since the law was established as a constitutional amendment nearly four decades ago, according to legislative staff. But the members did reject a recommended raise for the first time in 2006 by voting to keep their salaries the same until 2010. In 2002, they approved a 38 percent increase that was implemented over four years.

Even if the legislature voted to forgo salaries altogether, the savings would not be enough to close a sizable budget shortfall. The collective cost of the salaries amounts to slightly more than $8 million, a small piece of the state's $15 billion general fund budget.

But Simonaire said the option should be open if Maryland citizens or state employees ever have to endure draconian cuts.

"This is a proactive bill that looks to the future and seeks to avoid problems when they come," he said.

The bill drew a tepid response in the committee, from Republicans and Democrats.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the panel's vice chairman and a Baltimore and Howard County Democrat, pointed out that lawmakers could personally refuse salary increases if they wanted to.

Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, who is on the committee, said he had yet to make up his mind on the bill, but a potential hurdle for it would be that it would require a constitutional amendment, meaning lawmakers would put the question to voters in November.

"He certainly has a good intention there by trying to offer us that tool," he said.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, a Washington County Republican on the committee, immediately rejected the idea.

"A lot of people in the General Assembly are doing this job full time," he said in an interview after the bill hearing. "Those people live on their salaries. ... The system's worked well for a number of years. There's no need to change it."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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