What's Steve Bailey running for?

Baltimore County Republican Steve Bailey couldn't be more right that local governments have overpromised on employee pensions and face a dire reckoning. We absolutely agree with him that the public sector should follow the private sector in switching from defined benefit plans, like pensions, to defined contribution plans, like 401(k)s. Mr. Bailey is on especially solid ground when he criticizes the benefits afforded to elected officials in Baltimore County, where a councilman is retiring this year with 100 percent of his annual salary for life, where county subsidized cars are common, and where the state's attorney makes $64,000 more per year than Maryland's governor.

These would be great fodder in a campaign for county executive or County Council. But Mr. Bailey isn't running for those things. He's running for state's attorney, an office whose primary duty is prosecuting criminals, and at that, he admits, his opponent, incumbent Scott Shellenberger, is doing a pretty good job.

How much does the state's attorney have to do with the county's fiscal health? Not much. The total budget for the office in the current fiscal year is $9,105,687. The county's overall budget is $2.8 billion, which means that Mr. Shellenberger is responsible for 0.3 percent of county spending. He has discretion to manage his office's budget, but he has no independent appropriating authority; he must make do with what the county executive and council give him.

As for his salary, $214,189 is high for an elected official (though not quite so high as the salary then-Mayor Martin O'Malley gave to the Baltimore City state's attorney in what was generally viewed as an attempt to entice challengers to Patricia C. Jessamy, with whom he had clashed). But the salary was not Mr. Shellenberger's doing. It got so high because of a 1982 state law that gave the state's attorney a salary equivalent to a circuit court judge plus an automatic 5 percent annual increase. That added up.

After Mr. Bailey lost the 2006 state's attorney's race to Mr. Shellenberger, he argued that the salary ought to reset to the level of a circuit court judge. That wasn't the county budget office's view of the law. But the real problem was that granting an elected official 5 percent raises no matter what was a mistake from the start but one county residents (Mr. Bailey included) were content to ignore while the popular Sandra O'Connor held the seat. Mr. Shellenberger got the legislature to change the law, rolling back his salary to $194,276 starting next year and reducing the annual increases to 1 percent. That ought to settle the question.

Come what may in this election for state's attorney, perhaps Mr. Bailey should be applying his passions for fiscal stewardship to seeking a post for which that is actually part of the job description.

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