Call to forgo wages splits lawmakers

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One-third haven't given up week's pay as nod to furloughed workers

General Assembly '09

January 25, 2009|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,

As many as one-third of Maryland lawmakers have not returned a portion of their legislative salaries - despite having been urged to show solidarity with state workers facing furloughs.

Amid budget woes, General Assembly leaders had encouraged lawmakers - whose pay is constitutionally protected - to voluntarily take payroll deductions or write a check to the state for the equivalent of as many as five days' pay. That's $605 for most members, and $785 for presiding officers.

The initiative could raise more than $100,000, a tiny sum that won't make much difference in a $14 billion operating budget suffering from huge revenue shortfalls. But General Assembly leaders and others said they felt it would be unseemly for lawmakers to be spared as state employees see their pay cut.

But to date, only about 120 out of 188 lawmakers have contributed either to the state or a charity, according to records obtained by The Baltimore Sun under freedom of information laws.

"They are adults. People should want to give back," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who devised the donation program with his House counterpart, Speaker Michael E. Busch. "It's a matter of pride."

All state employees have already lost two days' pay through furloughs, and the highest-paid will have to give back three more before July under an executive order signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley. The governor's proposed spending plan anticipates 700 layoffs and no salary increases as part of closing a $2 billion shortfall in the next budget year.

It's unclear, though, whether everyone inside the State House will participate in the budgetary pain.

Some lawmakers have objected to the program, refusing to put money in Maryland's coffers and instead choosing to make donations to charities of their choice. They argue that the state has a poor fiscal track record and that their money would be better spent elsewhere.

State law prohibits the release of detailed salary data, so it's impossible to know how much each lawmaker contributed and who contributed to charities. Officials also caution that the number doesn't include lawmakers who made donations but didn't inform human resources at the Department of Legislative Services, which is administering the program.

Miller, a lawyer with a private practice who returned the maximum payroll deduction of $785, has urged lawmakers to participate by giving the money to the state. He took issue with lawmakers giving to charities of their choice, indicating that they might be trying to boost support among constituents and that those donations "defeat the purpose of what we're trying to do."

"If they want to use the money to curry political favor with political supporters in their district who happen to be a nonprofit organization, legally they can do that," he said. "But morally, I don't think it's justified."

Some lawmakers, when asked why they have not yet donated, said they planned to do so. Some said it had slipped their mind; others said they have been swamped by work and haven't had a chance to take care of it. Lawmakers have just returned to their part-time State House jobs as the session opened last week.

Busch and Miller informed lawmakers about the donation program in mid-December.

Under the state Constitution, lawmakers cannot have their salaries reduced during their terms, so they can't be forced to take furloughs. That's why leaders created the program that allows for charitable contributions, which are tax-deductible. Lawmakers have until the fiscal year ends in June to sign up.

"I'm glad you told me I'm not on the list because I'm going to take care of that," said Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a federal lobbyist and former U.S. ambassador to Romania. The Prince George's County Democrat said he would donate five days' worth of pay out of his $43,500 salary to the state. "I just feel the state does a lot of important things, and I'm perfectly comfortable doing my part to help keep teachers in the classroom."

Other lawmakers said they didn't want to give to the state.

Del. Steven R. Schuh, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said that he made a $500 donation to the American Red Cross because he believed a contribution to state coffers amounted to a "tax surcharge on legislators." He noted that Maryland has the fourth-highest tax burden in the nation, according to a recent study by the Washington-based nonprofit Tax Foundation.

"I'm just not willing to voluntarily contribute to Maryland's effort to confiscate more of people's income in the form of taxes," said Schuh, a managing member at Schuh Advisory LLC, an investment banking and financial advisory firm. "The American Red Cross would use the money to much greater effect than the state of Maryland."

Miller called that way of thinking "total nonsense." He said, "Well, they get to vote on the budget; they get to amend the budget."

Busch declined to criticize the actions of lawmakers.

"I felt I should do my part," said Busch, who contributed the maximum donation to the state. "But I'm not going to judge anyone in the General Assembly on what they have given or where they contributed."

Patrick Moran, Maryland director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest union for state workers, said he hoped that all lawmakers have the "moral fortitude" to make a donation to the state. He noted that state employees didn't have a choice to donate their lost pay to charity.

"I would hope that the lawmakers would contribute to the same cause, so to speak, because that's what this is about," he said. "It's about maintaining services and making sure the state has the resources to provide the services everyone is counting on in tough economic times."

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