HELENA — A Helena state senator's bill to ask voters whether to cap state employee compensation got no support at its first hearing Thursday evening, as workers and their union representatives assailed it as an all-around bad idea.
“This is a really bad bill,” said Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, a union representing teachers and many state workers. “It's a capricious bill. It invites class warfare.
“Nobody in state government is overpaid. They do hard work on behalf of the citizens of this state. ... For 241 persons whose salary apparently offends someone, we're going to put on the ballot a referendum to cap everyone's salary? Why would we do that?”
Feaver, who said he doubts anyone in his union would be affected by the salary cap, was among the dozen people who testified against Senate Bill 129, sponsored by Republican Sen. Dave Lewis.
SB129, if approved by the Legislature, would place a referendum on the November 2012 ballot to cap state employee pay at twice Montana's median household income.
However, it wouldn't apply to thousands of public workers in Montana: The entire state university system and judicial branch of government, elected officials and state agency directors are exempted, and the governor and Legislative Council could grant “exceptions” for other employees if they document a “recruitment or retention problem” with the position.
A fiscal analysis of the bill said if it takes effect in 2013, the compensation cap, which includes health benefits, would start at about $84,000. It estimated that 241 positions would be affected.
If a current employee's compensation is higher than the cap, it would be reduced to the cap as of July 2014.
The Senate panel took no immediate action on Lewis' bill.
Lewis, a former state budget director whose Senate district stretches from Helena to Lavina, north of Billings, said he got the idea for the cap after traveling widely in the largely rural district.
“As I drove through Shawmut (a small town east of Harlowton), it occurred to me it would take all the incomes taxes paid by the people in that town to pay a director's salary,” he told the Senate Finance and Claims Committee. “That is what tipped it over for me.”
State benefits and salaries have grown beyond what taxpayers can afford, he said.
“Remember where the money comes from,” Lewis said. “That's what this should be all about. We shouldn't be thinking just about the market. We should be thinking about where the money comes from.”
But state personnel managers, workers and their union representatives lined up to blast Lewis' bill, saying it would throw the state pay system into chaos and make it harder to recruit good managers.
“Good managers are hard to find,” said Paula Stoll, head of the state Human Resources Division. “Montana's citizens can't afford bad managers. We won't be able to compete for good managers within the cap that SB129 provides.”
Madalyn Quinlan, chief of staff at the Office of Public Instruction for the past 16 years, said the cap would affect only five people in her office (including herself), with a combined 125 years of experience.
She said employees with that level of experience should be valued, rather than have their pay cut.
“You are the board of directors for state government and state employees,” Quinlan told legislators on the committee. “I believe if you send (this) out to the people of Montana to vote on it, it's a message that you do not value your professional managers.”
John McEwen, a retired state worker and former personnel manager, predicted that if the bill passed, the governor and the Legislature would simply grant exceptions to most of the upper-level managers whose salaries are above the cap.
“They'll stand in line at the governor's office or in your committees, they will be approved, you'll get a report, and nothing will change,” he said. “It's a bad business model.”
The state Democratic Party on Thursday also labeled Lewis a hypocrite, noting that his salary during his 18 years in state government, adjusted for inflation, would have been over the cap almost every year.
“After nearly two decades receiving a paycheck from Montana taxpayers, he now wants to limit the pay of employees still in the state work force,” said Ted Dick, the party's executive director.