Bill would limit state employees’ testimony

2013-02-05T19:53:00Z 2013-02-06T05:14:04Z Bill would limit state employees’ testimonyBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
February 05, 2013 7:53 pm  • 

HELENA — A lawmaker said Tuesday that his bill would prohibit state employees from lobbying at the Legislature on state time on agency policy, except on budget matters, but there was confusion over what it would actually do.

Some people supported House Bill 329, by Rep. Randy Brodehl, R-Kalispell, by saying it would level the playing field, while others criticized it as a denial of state employees’ free-speech rights.

Brodehl told the House State Administration Committee why he sponsored the bill.

“It’s easier for state employees to testify than citizens,” he said. “It’s harder for people to come from communities.”

Brodehl said his bill would let state employees testify only as informational witnesses — neither as supporters nor opponents of a bill, but just providing information. If they want to testify on policy matters, they would have to take the time off from work and do so on their own time, he said.

Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said state employees in the 1980s used to testify as informational witnesses when he served in the Legislature then. Now, he said, they testify for or against bills.

“They represent the government,” Thomas said. “They are the government. They ought not to have the same placeholder at this table as the citizens of the state.”

However, Thomas said the governor and his direct appointments should be able to testify for or against bills at the Legislature, and the same would apply to other elected officials and their appointees.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, a Democrat, criticized the bill.

“Who are state agencies to send to committee but their employees?” she asked. “Are we expected to hire third-party lobbyists? Have employees take time off? If you value public comment as an important part of the legislative process, I urge you to reject this bill.”

Supporting the bill was Gary Marbut of Missoula, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, who said he was testifying for himself only.

When he comes to Helena to testify before the Legislature, Marbut said he has to take a day off work, only to find “a roomful of employees, who only have to walk across the block,” lining up against his bills.

“I find that extremely frustrating,” Marbut said. “There’s something unfair about that.”

Doug Nulle, a California lawyer living in Clancy, agreed.

“It’s obviously unfair and sometimes unseemly for state employees to appear before legislative committees to advocate,” he said.

Terry Minow of the MEA-MFT union, which represents 2,000 state employees, opposed the bill, saying: “We frankly don’t understand the need for this bill. I don’t think state employees give up their right of free speech.”

When members of the union come to testify at the Legislature, they take time off from their state job and pay their own travel costs, she said.

Another opponent, Janet Ellis of Montana Audubon, said she reads the bill differently that its supporters.

“My understanding of the bill is it would prohibit the governor from testifying,” she said. “This does not allow elected state officials to testify.”

The committee didn’t take action on the bill.

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