- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. began a campaign to thwart legislative attempts to cut his budget by urging lawmakers yesterday to reject $35 million in spending reductions proposed for prisons by General Assembly budget analysts.

At a press conference in Baltimore, the governor told correctional officers who were standing behind him that they should lobby legislators to protect the money he has included in next year’s budget for their pay raises.

“We should not have to be here, and I’m a little angry today, a little frustrated,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

In Annapolis, the chairmen of the two budget committees said Mr. Ehrlich didn’t need to be at the press conference because correctional officers will get their pay increases.

The only issue is whether to make the raises retroactive to the first of this year instead of effective July 1, the normal date for pay increases to take effect, said Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George’s Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, and Delegate Norman H. Conway, Wicomico Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Both noted that the suggested cuts in correctional budgets cited by the governor are among dozens in all areas of the state budget proposed by analysts who are looking for ways to cut about $100 million from the budget. That is the target for the budget committees because Mr. Ehrlich’s budget exceeds the legislature’s self-imposed limit on the growth of state spending.

“We have a lot of options to look at” to reach that goal, Mr. Conway said.

Democratic legislative leaders are concerned that understaffing in prisons will put correctional officers at risk and hope that salary increases will make it possible to fill vacancies and fully staff prisons, he said.

Mr. Ehrlich’s budget includes $32.3 million for an average pay increase of 6 percent for all correctional officers. Except for periodic small cost-of-living increases given to all state employees, correctional officers have not gotten a pay increase in 15 years.

Asked why he had not boosted salaries for correctional officers in previous budgets, Mr. Ehrlich said the money had not been available when he had been struggling to balance the budget at a time of slow revenue growth.

“Obviously now, this year, with some of the reforms we’ve implemented, we have some additional dollars to put into our priorities. Public safety is priority one. You’re seeing it reflected it in these salaries,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

“Where was he last year?” said Delegate Joan Cadden, Anne Arundel Democrat. “Just because this is an election year, he’s giving them a pay increase that’s retroactive. That has never been done before.”

Delegate Murray D. Levy, Charles Democrat, said the same argument for a pay raise can be made for officers in juvenile institutions, “and there is no money for them.”

The governor has scheduled another press conference in Baltimore for today to complain about possible cuts in spending for health care and programs to help the disabled.

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