For the past few years, veteran reporters in The Gazette State Bureau have been following an unprecedented string of hirings: Since Gov. Brian Schweitzer took office in 2005, nine sitting Democratic state legislators have been hired for full-time state jobs. There have been state employees who served in the Legislature before, but never so many lawmakers getting other state jobs — six in the past 12 months.
Just last week, State Auditor Monica Lindeen hired state Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, as a policy adviser, one of a handful of appointed posts in the auditor’s office. State Sen. Jesse Laslovich, D-Anaconda, was already on Lindeen’s staff.
Over at the Justice Department, Attorney General Steve Bullock hired state Rep. Dave McAlpin, D-Missoula. Secretary of State Linda McCulloch hired state Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena. The other five lawmakers to get state jobs were hired either as policy advisers to Schweitzer or to work in departments headed by the governor’s appointees.
Among all the lawmakers taking other state jobs, only two, former Rep. Dan Villa, D-Anaconda, and former state senator and representative Eve Franklin, D-Great Falls, resigned their legislative seats upon accepting state employment. The rest have worked as state employees and state legislators. To avoid clear conflicts of interest, all should have resigned from the Legislature when they went to work for the executive branch.
As noted in this column back in July, Montana law requires that a school employee resign before serving on the school board. A board member can’t take a job in the district and still serve as trustee. However, the Montana Code does not restrict state legislators from being employees of the state government. Yet lawmakers who are state employees actually approve their own salary increases and benefits to be paid by taxpayers. They set the biennial budget that determines staffing levels and funding for each government department.
According to research by Gazette State Bureau chief Charles Johnson, 15 states prohibit legislators from holding other state jobs, four also ban them from local government jobs and two states allow lawmakers to be state government employees only if they held the state job before being elected to office. Montana is one of seven states that allow lawmakers to hold state and local government jobs so long as the lawmaker isn’t paid for those jobs while receiving legislative pay, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The 2011 Legislature should close this conflict-of-interest loophole. Montana’s talent pool is deep enough that we can have competent state employees and good lawmakers without double-dipping.
Disclosures fall short
The only restriction of legislators as state employees is a requirement that they file a report proving that they weren’t paid for their regular state job while they were paid for serving as legislators. This effort to safeguard against double-dipping applies to legislators who were already state employees when elected.
According to an Associated Press report last week, Laslovich was the only legislator in 2008 to disclose his salary along with a statement that he takes unpaid leaves from his Justice Department job when he works on legislative business. Sen. Mike Cooney, D-Helena, who works for the Labor Department, didn’t file. He and the others now working two state jobs need to file timely, proper reports with the state commissioner of political practices.