In most workplaces, this is no time to be talking about pay raises.
But Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly are expected to debate salary increases for themselves and other top elected officials when the legislative session opens this month. Under a process that's dictated by the state constitution, two citizen commissions are hammering out salary proposals that will be introduced in the legislature.
One commission has recommended a $10,000 raise, to $160,000, for the governor between 2013 and 2014, the last two years of the next term, and a commensurate raise for other statewide officials including the attorney general and comptroller. The other panel is mulling a pay increase for all 188 state lawmakers who now make at least $43,500 a year.
Not surprisingly, the prospect of approving raises in the midst of a recession has O'Malley and some lawmakers running away from a politically treacherous move. O'Malley, a Democrat, insists he and the lieutenant governor would not accept any extra pay and that he hopes other state officials do the same.
But one proposal that's taking shape and could gain traction in the legislature would allow for future pay increases if state workers also get a raise or the economy improves.
The proposals put the state's top politicians in the awkward position of discussing upping their own salaries as they institute deep budget cuts, including state worker furloughs, layoffs and pay freezes - and as they enter an election year in which they answer to their ultimate boss: the taxpayer.
Commissioners point out that neither the governor nor state lawmakers have received pay increases since 2006, even during good economic times. Several members of O'Malley's Cabinet now make more than he does. And though the legislature is in regular session for just 90 days, many lawmakers don't have outside jobs so their sole incomes have been eroded by inflation.
The General Assembly Compensation Commission meets this week and might make final recommendations then.
Republicans and labor union officials have expressed outrage. Patrick Moran, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the state's largest public-sector union, said his members were "shocked and disappointed" by the proposals, and that he's concerned state workers would continue to have their pay frozen while top elected officials get raises.
"It's just unfathomable that these commissions are coming out with these recommendations," Moran said. "I don't know what planet they live on."
Maryland officials already rank among the best paid in the nation. The governor's salary is the 11th highest, according to the Council of State Governments. And Maryland lawmakers make more than 20 percent above the average pay for lawmakers in states with similar workloads, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, which tracks data on full- and part-time legislatures.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he doesn't anticipate any salary increases next year when the state faces a $2 billion budget shortfall, but he kept open the possibility of future raises if that's what commissioners suggest.
"The problem we have is, unlike myself and others, close to one-third of the General Assembly consider themselves full-time legislators," said Miller, a successful trial attorney who makes $56,500 as a presiding officer in the legislature. "Their salary is in the 40s, and if you have a spouse and children, it's very difficult to make ends meet."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said lawmakers would not consider a "defined" pay raise that kicks in no matter what, but he said they might consider salary increases that are tied to an economic index, perhaps a measurement of the cost of living, and to raises for the state work force.
"We're not going to support an increase for ourselves when state workers aren't getting any," said Busch, who also works as the youth athletic administrator for Anne Arundel County.
Republican Del. Christopher B. Shank, the minority whip and an adjunct professor at George Washington University, said no raises should be considered for any elected official for the next four years, noting that his Washington County district is facing a 10 percent unemployment rate.
"We don't need a raise, and that's it," he said. "We're already fairly compensated."
The salary commissions, comprised of members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, are designed to shield elected officials from the political fallout of setting their own pay.
The panels meet only every four years, and their proposals for the governor and lawmaker salaries are introduced in the legislature as a resolution. Their recommendations apply to the next rather than current term of office, and the General Assembly may decrease - not increase - the suggested pay. The governor can't veto such resolutions, and any pay he refuses would likely remain in the state's operating fund.