Despite the recent pension and employee benefits controversies surrounding the Glendening administration, a Senate panel overwhelmingly endorsed yesterday the governor's former budget chief in Prince George's County as the state's budget secretary.
By a 15-4 vote, the Senate Executive Nominations Committee approved the nomination of Marita B. Brown as Gov. Parris N. Glendening's secretary of budget and fiscal planning.
The dissenting senators included one Democrat, Sen. Walter M. Baker of Cecil County, and three Republicans, Timothy R. Ferguson of Carroll County, Larry E. Haines of Carroll County and J. Lowell Stoltzfus of Somerset County.
The nomination still requires confirmation by the full Senate, but that is considered likely in view of the committee's action.
Ms. Brown, 51, faced an hour of questions from committee members who were most interested in what, if any, role she played in the controversial Prince George's County supplemental pension program. The program provided generous early retirement benefits to Mr. Glendening, the former county executive, and some of his senior aides.
She was also questioned on how Prince George's County, which had a $45 million surplus at the end of the previous fiscal year but could now be facing a $131 million deficit. Wayne K. Curry, Mr. Glendening's successor as county executive, announced last week plans to lay off 830 people to help balance the budget.
"People are very upset about this," testified Stanley B. Fetter, president of the Prince George's County Civic Federation, which opposes Ms. Brown's nomination. "How can we recommend that the same people be put in charge of the state budget unless some questions are answered?"
Ms. Brown told the senators that she had no role in the supplemental pension system that benefited Mr. Glendening and three of his top aides. She was neither a trustee in charge of overseeing the system nor a beneficiary.
In putting together the county's annual spending plans, she said, she relied on a consultant's actuarial report to budget the appropriate amount that both the county and employees should contribute to the pension program.
She said she believes that sick leave is like an "insurance policy" that benefits employees only if used. But she stopped short of criticizing the county's policy of paying employees half or in some cases all of the cash value of their accumulated sick leave when they depart government service.
"If a legislative body of government passes such a law, then I think it's proper," Ms. Brown said. "My personal philosophy is that it's an insurance policy, but I don't vote on these issues."
Ms. Brown cited numerous reasons for the financial problems facing Prince George's County, not the least of which were lower than expected revenues from property and income taxes. She said those same tax shortfalls are being felt elsewhere, including neighboring Montgomery County, which is facing an estimated $80 million budget deficit.
But budget woes in Prince George's County did not seem to trouble the senators nearly as much as did the controversy surrounding pensions. Yesterday's hearing had the appearance of a warm-up for the grilling planned later this week for Glendening nominees Michael J. Knapp and Frank W. Stegman.
Mr. Knapp, nominated to head the state's personnel department, and Mr. Stegman, the nominee for labor, licensing and regulation, were instrumental in crafting the Prince George's pension program. The governor has been lobbying committee members on their behalf for nearly two weeks, and the nominees have consented to be interviewed privately by individual senators before the 3 p.m. Friday hearing.