- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2002

ANNAPOLIS After 20 years of modest pay raises, the General Assembly Compensation Commission believes the time has come for big increases in the salaries paid to the 188 members of the General Assembly.
The commission proposed that the annual pay, now $31,509, be increased over the next four years to $43,500.
The result is a big problem for members of the General Assembly.
Legislative salaries have not kept pace with inflation the last two decades and many lawmakers believe they deserve a raise. But they know it would look bad to voters to accept a big increase in a year when money is tight and they are struggling to balance the state budget.
"It's a difficult issue for all of us when you're dealing with the needs of the state and the need to cut spending," said state Sen. James E. DeGrange, Anne Arundel County Democrat.
Even if the raises are justified, it doesn't look good to take them when state employees are getting only a 2 percent salary increase and are being asked to pay a bigger share of health care costs, he said.
Republican leaders say they believe the increase is too big and are trying to decide how to go about opposing it. Democrats, who control the House and Senate, are not sure how they will handle an issue with potentially serious political implications.
The state constitution prohibits salaries from being increased during a four-year term of office, so pay scales have to be established every four years just as senators and delegates are preparing to go before voters to seek another term in office, as they will this fall.
It is always a difficult pre-election issue, but the recommendation for an $11,991 pay increase spread over four years makes it even more difficult this year.
When the commission made its decision in December, S. Nelson Weeks, the chairman, said salaries "have not kept up with other states, with [Maryland state] employees' salaries or with the cost-of-living index."
In 1982, the annual salary was $21,000 for all 188 lawmakers except the Senate president and House speaker, who are paid more. If pay raises had kept pace with inflation, senators and delegates would be making about $38,000 this year instead of $31,509.
The commission was created in 1970 to try to relieve legislators of the difficult task of setting their own salaries. It meets every four years and makes recommendations on salaries, pensions and reimbursement for expenses.
Lawmakers have three options: They can let the commission's plan take effect without a vote, reduce the amount of the increase or reject a pay raise altogether.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, Allegany Democrat, said his inclination is not to bring the resolution up for a vote.
"If you look at it in an unvarnished, realistic, matter-of-fact way, legislative salaries for the last 15 years have fallen behind the basic cost-of-living increases that the rest of the world got," he said.
The House Republican leader, Delegate Alfred Redmer of Baltimore County, said the Republican caucus has not decided what to do about the pay issue, but probably will opt for something less than what the commission recommends.
His counterpart in the Senate, Lowell Stoltzfus of Somerset County, said the salary increase would be too much in any year, especially one in which the state is struggling to avoid a massive budget deficit.
"Our caucus has taken a position not to support any kind of pay increase this year," he said.
But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Prince George's Democrat, said some Republicans senators have told him privately they support the salary hike. Mr. Miller said he will meet soon with Democratic leaders to decide how to deal with the issue.
For lawmakers who support the pay increase but fear voter reaction, the best outcome would be for the salary resolution to take effect without coming before the Senate and House. That would relieve all 188 members of the necessity of going on record for more money.
Mr. Taylor said another option would be to amend the salary plan to let legislators return the pay raise to the state treasury. That way lawmakers worried about re-election prospects could promise during their campaigns they would not take the additional pay.
But some legislators say salaries are too low and voters would understand the need for a pay increase.
"It's pretty much a full-time commitment for us," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat and a farmer from Charles County. "I spend a lot more time on this than I do on farming."
"But at a time when you're cutting everything, we have to take a close look at it," he said.

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