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Maryland General Assembly sets up panel to investigate state payroll problems

Taking a shot at Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Democratic leaders of the General Assembly said Friday they have set up a legislative panel to investigate problems with the state's payroll system.

The joint House-Senate committee will look into what Assembly leaders called the "alarming mishandling" of employee paychecks in recent months.

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Formation of the group was announced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton of Charles County and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore, who will co-chair the investigation. Both are Democrats.

The announcement came in a news release from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, also Democrats.

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The Assembly leaders pointed to more than 1,100 emails they received from employees at the Department of Public Safety and Corrections raising concerns about mistakes in their paychecks. Complaints have included missing base pay as well as a failure to account for overtime hours put in by department employees, including correctional officers.

"We ask these public servants to work overtime in difficult situations," Miller said. "It is our duty to make certain that they are paid for their work."

Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said ensuring that every state employee is paid correctly is something the administration takes very seriously.

"We look forward to partnering with the General Assembly to share information about the true scope of this issue and the immediate and proactive steps that are being taken to address it," she said.

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The Department of Budget and Management told a legislative committee last week that it issued checks totaling $81,479 last month to employees who were shorted on their base pay. The total state payroll in November was $182.3 million.

The new legislative panel's launch comes as the Hogan administration and top lawmakers feud over transportation policy and prepare for battles over the state budget when the legislature reconvenes Jan. 11.

Statements issued by the panel's leaders show the majority Democrats aren't cutting the Republican governor any slack. They pointedly likened the new panel to a work group that in 2014 looked into the failed launch of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange under Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley — an information technology fiasco that Hogan strongly criticized during his campaign that year.

"What has happened here under this administration is unconscionable," Middleton said. "The administration was warned that the system was not ready and for two months, employees have been receiving partial paychecks even as we are approaching the holiday season."

Middleton, who was not invited to a November event where Hogan announced a bridge project in the senator's district, said the problems experienced by employees is "squarely the fault of the governor and his administration, who have been insensitive as to how important a paycheck is to these public servants."

McIntosh was equally blunt.

"In an effort to save a few dollars, the Hogan administration ignored repeated warnings and put a payroll system in place that is cheating corrections officers and their families out of their pay during the holidays," she said. "The administration's response to this crisis has been to stonewall requests for information, insult the corrections officers' union and deny the true size and scope of the problem."

Legislative leaders said members of the panel will be named next week.

State employees and their union leaders have complained for weeks that a new payroll system brought online by the administration in October was leaving them with short paychecks. Last week, about 50 members of the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees picketed the governor's mansion over the issue during a holiday party for state employees.

Joe Cox, a staff representative for AFSCME, said the problems are continuing even as some employees have received back pay.

"It has not been fixed, and it appears it's going to be a chronic condition," he said.

Cox welcomed the legislative leaders' action.

"We're very, very happy that they're treating this issue with the seriousness it deserves, and frankly more seriousness than we've gotten out of the administration," he said.

Last week, a public safety department official said the problems had been reduced "drastically."

"This appears to be more about politics than about people getting paid," said Gary McLhinney, director of professional standards for the Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services.

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