A state employees union told Maryland lawmakers yesterday that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. flouted the will of the General Assembly when his administration sought approval of health care contracts affecting 100,000 workers and retirees without first consulting union representatives.
But administration officials said that the contracts, which include higher co-payments for doctor visits, were legal and that legislative efforts to prevent such increases were unconstitutional.
As part of an effort to control state spending, the administration presented the state Board of Public Works with contracts that, for example, could raise co-payments for many state employees and retirees from $5 to $15 for a doctor visit. The contracts were approved unanimously by the three-member panel, which consists of Ehrlich (R), Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D) and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D).
Council 92 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the state's largest employees union, contends that a provision in the state budget allows the administration to alter health benefits only after signing "memoranda of understanding" with unions.
"In failing to comply with this language, Gov. Ehrlich has ignored the will of the General Assembly," Sue Esty, the union's legislative director told a hearing yesterday of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "There was never a two-way dialogue."
State Budget Secretary Chip DiPaula Jr. told the committee that the administration believes that the budget provision is invalid because of constitutional concerns cited by the state attorney general's office.
Under the Maryland Constitution, legislators may cut the budget submitted by the governor, but they may not add to it unless they identify a funding source. Freezing workers' co-payments would, in effect, force an increase in state spending, DiPaula argued.
Committee members said they were distressed that the administration had not provided a copy of the attorney general's opinion before the budget language was adopted this year.
"We didn't have any intention to hide it," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, DiPaula's deputy.
Several Democratic senators warned that, regardless of the legal technicalities, the administration risked alienating legislators.
"I'm talking about relationships now, not the law," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore County).
Kopp, a former legislator who represents the General Assembly's interests on the Board of Public Works, also was sharply questioned about why she voted for the new contracts.
Kopp said that the proposal "seemed like a reasonable package" but that she did not ask enough questions about discussions with employees' representatives. She said she assumed more talks had occurred than was the case.
Esty said the administration's discussions with unions were limited to a presentation in February in which there was no give-and-take. Although the increases in co-payments may seem modest, they could have a significant impact on some lower-income workers and retirees, she said.
William Stevens, a disabled state retiree from Carroll County, said that he sees three doctors a month and that "any raise in co-pays is going to hurt me."