By andy Zieminski and Kate Prahlad
ANNAPOLIS – Fiscal analysts presented a possible $761 million in budget cuts to House members Tuesday, including unpopular proposals to eliminate 2 percent cost-of-living raises for state workers and cutting funding for 750 vacant state jobs.
Holding base salaries steady in fiscal 2009 and cutting vacant jobs when most state agencies are on a hiring freeze would save about $89 million — but it would also make it harder to find and retain skilled workers, lawmakers said.
“The biggest concern I have is these two recommendations really exacerbate a downward spiral that we’ve seen in recent years, and that is the ability for our state agencies to recruit and retain qualified personnel,” said Delegate John Bohanan, D-St. Mary’s.
Take-home pay for state employees could actually decrease in fiscal 2009 without a cost-of-living raise, because workers’ contributions to retirement funds are set to increase from 4 percent to 5 percent next year, according to analysts with the Department of Legislative Services.
“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Delegate Susan Aumann, R-Baltimore County. “I can’t swallow that.”
Aumann said that cutting positions at state agencies is “a usual suspect” whenever legislators have to address shortfalls.
When Delegate Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore, asked Legislative Services analyst David Juppe why the proposals were on the table, Juppe said: “We’re just trying to give the committee options. The state does have a $1.5 billion projected structural deficit.”
The department developed the proposed budget cuts at lawmakers’ request and presented them Tuesday to the House Appropriations Committee.
“There are options you consider because sometimes the other options are worse,” Juppe added.
Local union leaders criticized the measures.
A hiring freeze that has been in place at most state agencies since 2001 means that “employees with an overload of stress from their work load leave, and then their positions are frozen,” said Sue Esty, assistant director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Maryland.
Cutting vacant jobs and cost-of-living raises would only make retention problems worse, she said.
Other budget reduction proposals heard Tuesday included no increase in funding for public and private higher education or for community college grants. Those cuts would save $50.6 million.
Opponents argued that leveling funding was still a cut for education, which would trickle down to hurt student enrollment and education affordability.
Proposed cuts also included reductions to the State Arts Council, stem cell research grants, rural broadband funds and the film production wage rebate program, all initiatives run by the state Department of Business and Economic Development.
DBED Secretary David Edgerley argued that the agency’s programs help “influence the economy” and keep people “engaged in regional development,” and cuts would damage competitiveness.
The Public Safety and Administration Subcommittee considered cutting $3.3 million from the State Board of Elections, money currently dedicated to changing the current touch-screen voting machines to include paper ballots.
Another proposal would save the state $8.6 million by reducing the commission to lottery ticket agents from 5.5 percent to 5 percent.