Montana Senate approves pay bill after rejecting effort to add money

2013-04-15T19:06:00Z 2013-04-15T22:48:03Z Montana Senate approves pay bill after rejecting effort to add moneyBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — The Montana Senate on Monday endorsed a bill to provide pay raises for state employees over the next two years.

Senators rejected an attempt to add more money for the pay hikes to boost them closer to the levels that were negotiated last summer.

House Bill 13, by Rep. Kathy Swanson, D-Anaconda, passed 36-13 and faces a final Senate vote this week.

The bill does not include the specific, 5 percent, across-the-board raises in base pay over the next two years that former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and unions representing public employees agreed to in negotiations last summer.

Instead, the bill, as amended by the House Appropriations Committee last month and accepted by the full House and now the Senate, appropriates a lump sum of $113.7 million over the next two years for the executive branch to distribute in raises.

That's 25 percent less, or $38.2 million less, than the $151.9 million in all funds that Gov. Steve Bullock had proposed in his budget to fund the matching 5 percent raises both years.

HB13 directs executive branch officials to pay “particular attention to the lower pay bands and those who did not receive base pay increases in the biennium beginning July 1, 2011.”

It would be provide the first increase in base pay for many state employees in four years.

However, more than half of executive branch employees received separate pay hikes under the broadband pay plan in fiscal 2012 during the Schweitzer administration.

House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, tried an unsuccessful amendment to plug in $7 million more in general fund money into the bill.

“It’s coming up a little short,” he said. “We want to come as close as we can to providing that 5 (percent) and 5 (percent) to everyone.”

Sesso’s amendment also tried to direct the state Department of Administration to continue include the private sectors of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota in its biennial pay surveys. An amendment in the Senate Finance Committee limited comparisons to state and local governments in the five states and stripped out the private sector.

His amendment failed 22-28.

Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said the Legislature should be approving the original pay plan negotiated by Schweitzer and the unions. However, no one offered such an amendment.

Senators voiced their frustration with the current way the pay raises are negotiated and how the broadband pay hikes were distributed in the Schweitzer administration.

“The whole problem is there is a negotiation that takes place, and this body isn’t at the table and is responsible for funding it,” said Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek. “Everyone in this body wants to make sure the people who didn’t get raises get one.”

Sesso called HB13 “a step forward,” even without his amendment, adding: “I would ask everyone to stand up for the hardworking people of this state.”

Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, the main Senate sponsor of HB13, talked about the hard work that many state employees perform.

He agreed with Ripley that the current pay plan system is broken.

“This bill doesn’t have everything everyone wants,” Olson said. “I wish Gov. Bullock good luck in trying to figure how to spread this out.”

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