Elected officials donate pay in lieu of furlough

POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

December 28, 2008|By LARRY CARSON

Unlike county elected officials who recently received automatic raises, state legislators have not had a pay increase since the 2006 election. Still, they're being asked to make a sacrifice just the same.

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch have asked General Assembly members to give up a slice of their annual pay as a gesture of solidarity with state workers, who face two to five days of unpaid furlough as a cost-cutting measure.

Elected officials can't be furloughed, and also can't change their annual pay while in office. They can donate money to the state or a charity, however.

State employees who make more than $40,000 a year are facing five unpaid days off to erase $34 million of a projected revenue shortfall this fiscal year.

County-level elected officials got a 4.9 percent cost of living increase this month, but County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat, and council member Greg Fox, a Republican, said they would donate the raises to charity, too.

Ten of Howard's 11 legislators said they will comply with leadership's request, though several Republican delegates criticized Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley over the situation. Del James E. Malone, a Democrat, did not return repeated phone calls from a reporter.

GOP Dels. Gail H. Bates and Warren E. Miller said the furloughs could have been avoided if Democrats had cut spending more during the last session.

Bates called the furloughs "absurd," particularly given that this year's state operating budget is higher than last year's.

But Democrats say they've cut $2 billion to date, and more trimming is in the offing. They contend that Republican criticism is just political rhetoric.

"In effect, these furloughs are part of the cuts," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat and Senate majority leader. This year's small percentage spending increase merely reflects inflation, he said.

Most legislators see the donations idea as in keeping with legislators' donations to charities in 1992, the last time a bad economy forced employee furloughs. They see the contributions as a way to show empathy with state workers, even though donating money to charity won't help the state's bottom line.

"I think it's an appropriate suggestion from the speaker," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat. "The idea behind it is a just one."

Others, like Del. Frank S. Turner, face different circumstances. A state employee by virtue of his job as a professor at Morgan State University, Turner faces both a furlough and the request to donate a portion of his legislative pay.

"Every year since I've been in the legislature, I go on [job] leave without pay," said Turner, a Democrat.

The 61-year-old Turner said he's too old to likely recoup stock market losses to his retirement savings, but he's still planning to donate part of his legislative pay.

Democratic Dels. Guy Guzzone, Shane Pendergrass and Steve DeBoy, and the county's three state senators, said they felt no hesitation.

"Look, I think we all need to pitch in," Guzzone said. "I believe in sticking together with everybody who is part of the government."

Pendergrass said she gives to charities every year.

"I will donate substantially more than I would lose if I were furloughed, because I do it anyway," she said.

The county's three senators, Kasemeyer, James N. Robey and Allan H. Kittleman, also said they support the idea. Kittleman, the county's lone Republican senator, and Bates and Miller said they plan to make a joint donation.

But Miller and Bates offered harsh criticism of O'Malley for what they feel are unwarranted spending increases compared to what they say was former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s fiscal frugality.

"Ehrlich faced real, real deficits and never furloughed," Bates said. "There are places cuts can be made. We don't need to do it."

"We have proposed reasonable reductions in spending. If they had followed them, we wouldn't be in this mess," Bates said.

Miller made similar points.

"I think it's an excellent gesture, but I have to say it's a little disingenuous after our budget discussion last year," he said. "Last week, the governor says he's saving $38 million [with furloughs] but he spent $72 million to preserve open space."

But Kasemeyer noted that in his last year as governor, Ehrlich raised spending by 11.4 percent.

"They never talk about that," he said. "You can use all sorts of numbers."

Bobo said comparing budget policy with donations in response to employee furloughs is like comparing apples to oranges.

"I have a feeling we're going to see a lot of cuts proposed by the O'Malley administration," she said.

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