ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Parris N. Glendening opened his home to state employees for the annual holiday open house Wednesday, but some workers would rather leave a lump of coal than presents in the outgoing governor’s stocking.
With the state facing a $1.2 billion budget shortfall next year and a state commission recommending employee pay cuts and reduced benefits, some state workers were filled with something other than holiday cheer.
“It brings down the spirit, I believe,” said Judy Dippenworth, a 13-year employee in the comptroller’s office upset about potential cuts and the nearly 40 percent pay increase by 2006 approved for the General Assembly.
“State employees are not getting a raise, health care insurance went up, they’re taking away our 2 percent (cost of living increase) and they got a raise?”
Dippenworth was one of a dozen stout souls who withstood a frosty torrent waiting for the Government House gates to open on a day when some state employees enjoyed liberal leave because of ice and temperatures in the 30’s.
An open house for the general public is planned for Monday from noon to 2 p.m.
It was Dippenworth’s third year in a row attending the open house and she said the state, with the governor vacating Government House in January, took less care decking the halls this year.
“It’s not as pretty,” she said. “There’s not as many Christmas trees. They had a train last year . . . I was hoping for some music at least.”
Dippenworth is not the only state worker spending the holidays wondering how the budget crunch will affect pay checks, said Sue Espy, legislative director for Council 92 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. State workers, she said, are warily waiting to see if Gov.- elect Bob Ehrlich and the General Assembly will cut wages or benefits during the upcoming legislative session.
“State employees are not happy campers right now,” Espy said, “especially considering what could happen in January.”
The Commission on Maryland’s Fiscal Structure approved preliminary recommendations for budget cuts Tuesday, including furloughs and a 1 percent pay cut for state employees.
The union, she said, considered it a major achievement that Glendening approved collective bargaining for AFSCME members, but also worried his hiring freeze may reduce its ability to provide services. Raising health care costs, she said, would be a “disaster,” especially for pensioners.
But some visitors to the open house were enjoying the season despite the chilly forecast, both atmospheric and fiscal.
Betty Tasker, an employee with the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, enjoyed her first open house enough to convince co-workers Joy Bullen, Danielle Eure and Yolanda Killian to tag along this year. The women had a chance to meet Glendening.
“I shook hands with the governor,” said Killian. “That’s a first.”
Added Bullen: “This was probably our last chance to meet him.”
The governor chose a nautical theme for the Christmas tree and doled out Salisbury Pewter State House ornaments, but it was the pink poinsettias and white roses filling the corners and spilling from pots on window sills at which the women most marveled.
Budget cuts, they said, were a worry that would not ruin their Christmas.
As Tasker said, “We just have to share our love for one another.” – 30 – CNS-12-11-02