For two months, the Maryland Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee, on which I serve, has held hearings day and night -- but for what reason? If we are here only to give blanket approval to the governor's budget, our time of service could be reduced from three months to three hours.
In an effort to gain some control, the committee approved a 2 percent across-the-board cut in state employees' salaries and benefits, none of which was to come out of the 4 percent pay raise for state employees proposed by the governor. We carefully considered the 2 percent payroll reduction twice, and on both occasions an 8-to-5 majority approved the cut.
The 2 percent payroll cut recognized that waste exists and that management best knows where to find it. Our proposal would have forced agency heads to take a hard look at present programs and personnel needs.
This action sparked an uproar, including an editorial in The Post ("Buck-Stopping in Annapolis, March 15). But it would not necessarily have placed a single worker's job in jeopardy. Of the more than 82,000 positions in state government, 3,800 are vacant. The 2 percent cut would have eliminated only 1,640 positions. Committee members knew that the cut was only a short-term attempt to address the problem.
Certainly, the overwhelming majority of state employees are hard-working and competent. Retaining them is an essential ingredient for a producHarry Hughes, House Speaker Ben Cardin and Senate President Melvin Steinberg, recognizing that state workers are too often underpaid, encouraged the General Assembly to appropriate an extra $34 million to make state employee salaries more commensurate with those in the private sector. The appropriation, long overdue, was the first step in a three-year effort to correct the imbalance.
Still, action must be taken so that incompetent state employees can be terminated. As it stands, stringent personnel regulations make it nearly impossible to fire unproductive employees. Under the existing merit system, a physical-plant employee at the University of Maryland was suspended with pay after being charged with murder last December. The state must go through three separate appeal hearings, which will stretch over a year, before he can be discharged. Something is terribly wrong with a personnel system that is unable to suspend, without pay, employees charged with murder.
A revenue surplus is no excuse for inefficiency and low productivity. In the private sector, a board of directors of a company with a budget comparable to Maryland's does not debate such questions as whether or not an additional clerk typist is needed in a particular department. But when the board becomes aware that labor costs are out of line, it orders management to make the necessary reductions. We in the General Assembly are akin to the board of directors of a company.
Sadly, the committee's efforts to gain control over the runaway budget process were thwarted, leaving it stacked in favor of the executive branch and its bureaucrats who are rarely held accountable to the will of the General Assembly. It's time the buck stopped in Annapolis.