Pay raise bill heads toward passage

2013-04-19T19:36:00Z 2013-04-19T23:47:28Z Pay raise bill heads toward passageBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA -- A proposed pay raise for state employees is only one vote away from passing the Legislature and going to Gov. Steve Bullock for his consideration.

On a 97-3 vote, the House approved Senate amendments to House Bill 13, by Rep. Kathy Swanson, D-Anaconda. A final vote is set for Saturday.

“I think it’s a good bill,” Swanson said. “Keep it moving.”

HB13 has changed a great deal from her original bill, which included the 5 percent, across-the-board increases in base pay in each of the next two years for state workers. That was the deal negotiated last summer by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer and public-employee unions.

The House Appropriations Committee amended it last month to remove the specific 5 percent raises and instead appropriates a lump sum of $113.7 million from various sources for the executive branch to distribute in pay raises.

The total money in the bill is 25 percent less, or $38.2 million less, than the $151.9 million from all funding sources that Bullock had proposed in his budget to pay for 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.”

If approved and signed into law, HB13 would provide the first increase in base pay for many state employees in four years.

In 2009, during the recession, employee unions volunteered to take a two-year pay freeze. The Legislature agreed but gave a one-time, $450 payment to those making $45,000 or less.

In 2011, Schweitzer and unions agreed to raises of 1 percent and 3 percent, but the Legislature refused to pass it, resulting in two more years of base pay freezes for many state workers.

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

Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, criticized the bill for also funding the state’s share of employees’ health insurance costs.

“How many people in your county work two or three jobs and get no benefits?” she asked.

However, Ballance said she was supporting the bill because the Senate amended it to say that the Department of Administration, in future biennial salary surveys, will look only at state and local government salaries in Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota for comparisons and no longer include private-sector pay in those states and Montana.

Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena, spoke for the bill, saying it isn’t about Helena.

It’s about the people who plow roads so students can get to school, those who take care of people at Warm Springs State Hospital and correctional officers to keep Montanans safe every day from sex offenders and armed robbers at Montana State Prison near Deer Lodge.

“We’ve got correctional officers making $12.50 an hour,” he said.

As for the fact that some employees received pay raises under the separate “broadband” plan in fiscal 2012 under the Schweitzer plan, Gibson said, “It’s time to forget the past. The Legislature did it. It put in broadband.”

In other business Friday:

--Two bills to fix the state’s financially struggling pension funds stalled in the House.

The House, on a 50-50 vote, refused to pass Senate amendments to HB377, by Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, to provided financial improvements for the Teachers’ Retirement System.

And it declined to hear the Senate amendments to the other major pension bill, HB454, by Rep. Bill McChesney, D-Miles City, until it receives an updated fiscal note detailing its cost. That bill deals with the Public Employees’ Retirement System.

-- It endorsed on a 54-44 vote, SB394, by Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, to provide a one-time, 5 percent cut in individual income taxes in tax year 2014 for a total reduction of $47 million.

The bill was sent to House Appropriations Committee for further review.

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