HELENA — The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday rejected an attempt to approve the bill to raise state employees’ base pay by 5 percent in each of the next two years.
Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena, moved to pass and send to the House floor House Bill 13, the pay plan bill by Rep. Kathy Swanson, D-Anaconda.
His motion failed 9-12. Gibson and the committee’s eight Democrats voted for HB13, while the other 12 Republicans opposed it.
The bill wasn’t tabled and can be taken up later.
Gibson said afterward he’s working on an alternative pay plan with House Appropriations Chairman Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, and Senate Finance and Claims Chairman Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek. He said they hope to have a plan by the end of next week.
“The majority of us feel there are people who need a pay raise,” Gibson said.
Most state workers have not had a raise in their base pay for four years.
Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, endorsed HB13 and recalled the Highway Patrol dispatcher and Corrections Department workers who spoke compellingly at the Jan. 23 hearing about the need for pay raises.
Many state workers have not had a pay raise in four years, even as the state has amassed a large budget surplus.
Hollenbaugh said it’s these workers who make Montana great, adding: “It’s time we honor them.”
Ankney said he couldn’t refute anything Hollenbaugh said.
“The state has some of the greatest workers,” he said. “However, I cannot support this flat, across-the-board 5 (percent) and 5 (percent).”
In fiscal 2012, when the base pay was frozen, state employees received a total of $18.8 million in raises under the separate broadband pay plan where directors can give raises for various reasons, Ankney said. His figure does not include longevity raises or promotions.
Of that $18.8 million, blue-collar workers received only $8,559 of the total, he said.
“Somewhere in here, somebody’s getting shortchanged,” Ankney said. “I said I will make this equitable, and I’m still working to make this equitable. But a flat 5 (percent) and 5 (percent) isn’t going to make this equitable. They’ll fall further behind.”
He said raises of up to 26 percent were given last year under the broadband pay plan.
What Ankney wants to do is target the raises to the people who didn’t get broadband pay hikes and give higher raises to the lowest paid employees and lower ones to the highest paid.
“If you got an 8 to 10 percent (broadband) pay raise, don’t go buying a new car, because you’re not going to be getting a raise,” Ankney said afterward.
Leaders of the three unions, who negotiated the pay raise deal with Gov. Brian Schweitzer last year, were disappointed because Ankney said after the hearing the committee would send the bill out in a couple of weeks.
"It feels like ‘Groundhog Day,’” said Timm Twardoski, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Montana Council 9. He was referring to the movie in which the character played by Bill Murray repeats the same day over and over again.
He added, “I almost wish they would have killed it so we could have sent them a letter to demand to bargain. We would sit down with the governor and negotiate.”
“This bill has been around for nine months, at least,” said Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT. “We bargained a deal with Gov. (Brian) Schweitzer last summer, so the powers that be had plenty of time to decide how they want to provide equity.”
“I guess you could say HB13 is still lying there, but it’s kinda like a fish on the bank,” Feaver said. “Kinda flopping pretty hard. I suspect that if it doesn’t get back in the water here pretty quick it will die.”
Quint Nyman, executive director of the Montana Public Employees Association, said, “They’ve done nothing but sit on their hands. They’re slapping the act of collective bargaining in the face by not showing any interest in the agreement.”
Nyman said he received a letter this week from a Transportation Department employee who said he can’t wait any longer for a pay raise and took a job in the private sector.
“They’re playing with people’s lives,” Nyman said.