Governors can omit raises despite deal, lawyer says

Maryland governors need not include pay raises in their budgets even after they've negotiated increases with public employees' unions, a state lawyer argued yesterday in a case that will determine the impact of a 1999 collective bargaining rights law.

Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch said the 1999 law is not strong enough to require spending levels for employee salaries, even after both sides have agreed on a raise.


Under Maryland's constitution, the governor has vast budget powers, and funding for only a very few items - notably, public education - are specifically required.

"You have to jump through certain hoops to require funding. Mere laws don't mandate funding," Zarnoch said yesterday in an interview after a court hearing on the issue.


Zarnoch and representatives of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees appeared in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court yesterday for arguments in a case about whether Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was obligated to fund 2 percent pay raises negotiated by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening shortly before leaving office.

If the state wins the case, the status of the collective bargaining law championed by Glendening, a strong advocate of union rights, would be weakened considerably.

"The problem for both sides is we are dealing with a wholly new law that regulates significant rights and responsibilities," said Joel A. Smith, an attorney for the largest state employees labor union, which represents 27,000 workers.

Union officials say that Glendening reached a legitimate and timely deal with labor leaders, and that pay raises worth $60 million and step increases valued at $40 million should have been included in the spending plan that Ehrlich submitted days after he took office.

Ehrlich was obligated under the 1999 law to include money for the salary increases in his budget, they argue. The union went to court in April in an attempt to enforce the statute.

But Zarnoch says that Ehrlich was on sound legal footing for several reasons when he ignored the agreements and submitted a budget for this year that did not include the raises.

First, nothing in state law or the constitution requires the spending, Zarnoch said. And second, a departing governor cannot bind his or her successor with financial obligations.

Even if Ehrlich had included raises in his budget, it is likely that the General Assembly would have cut it as lawmakers sought to balance the budget in lean times without relying on revenue from slot machines, as the governor proposed.


Last week, Ehrlich said through a spokesman that he hopes to include 2 percent raises for state workers in the next budget he submits in January.

Both sides say they expect Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Michael E. Loney to issue a ruling within a few weeks on the state's motion for summary judgment. The ruling will probably address the substance of the case, lawyers said, because few facts are in dispute.

Loney told both sides yesterday his decision would only be a first step in a case likely heading for the state's highest court.