Lawmakers reject freeze on judges’ salaries, pay hike expected

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By Daniel Menefee

Lawmakers rejected an amendment Monday night to freeze judges salaries at the current range of $127,000 to $181,000 a year, and a final vote on raises of up to $14,500 over three years is expected Tuesday.

House of Delegates chamber

House of Delegates chamber

The legislature had 50 days from January 27 to reject or amend a resolution that automatically increases salaries by up to $29,000. The House is under a tight deadline to approve a Senate bill that cuts the raises in half.

House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell disagreed with House Appropriations chair Mary-Dulany James over when the 50 days expired. He asked her to confirm how long the House had to consider the Senate resolution.

“We’re dealing with a $35 billion state budget and we can’t seem to count to 50,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell, R- Calvert, special ordered the resolution until the end of the session Monday night so James could get confirmation on the deadline. James called the Attorney General’s Office from the House floor and got a ruling 30 minutes later that pinned the deadline at March 15, not March 14 as stated in the resolution’s fiscal note.

James, D-Harford, said that the House still had little time to pass the Senate’s version of the raises before the full raises would kick in. She said it was unlikely the Senate would take up any amendments in the time frame needed to stop the larger salary increases from taking effect.

James said she was feeling a sense of deja vu and recalled higher salaries were triggered in 2005 when the two chambers failed to agree on judges salaries. She called on the House to pass the Senate resolution to avoid a repeat of 2005.

“The arguments we heard tonight is that we have to give [judges] half a pay raise or they’re going to end up getting a whole pay raise,” O’Donnell said, as he noted $6.8 million in annual costs to the state to pay for the increases.

“We’re raising spending on highly compensated individuals, very good individuals,” O’Donnell said. “But I don’t know anyone getting those kinds of raises. Our state employees were furloughed for three years. Real pay cuts.”

He urged the House to pass his amendment to freezes salaries and let the Senate take up the amendment.

“It can go over to the Senate and they can adopt it,” O’Donnell said. “And we won’t spend taxpayer dollars in this false deadline environment.”

The amendment was rejected by a vote of 67 to 57.

Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, voted against the amendment in stark contrast to statements in early February at a House Appropriations Committee hearing. She said then she couldn’t support a pay increase when other public sector employees were forced to make so many sacrifices.

“[The judges] failed to make their case in the face of a $1 billion budget shortfall, “Mizeur said on Feb. 8.