Unions, Schweitzer agree to pay increase; 2013 Legislature must approve it

2012-06-11T16:06:00Z 2012-06-12T11:40:04Z Unions, Schweitzer agree to pay increase; 2013 Legislature must approve itBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — State workers would receive base pay raises of 5 percent in each of the next two years under a tentative deal reached Monday with the Schweitzer administration, but the pact is subject to approval by the 2013 Legislature.

The unions announced the deal at a hurried press conference on the steps of the Capitol after the deal was reached earlier in the day.

It also calls for increasing the state’s share of employees’ health insurance premiums by 10 percent in each of the next two years.

The total cost of the pay proposal is up to $138 million from all sources of funds, including $71 million from the state general fund, state Budget Director Dan Villa said.

The proposed deal, which would affect 15,000 to 16,000 employees, will go to the 2013 Legislature, which has the final say in appropriating the money for the raises.

The Republican-controlled Legislature last year refused to pass a deal negotiated by the unions and the Democratic governor’s administration calling for a 1 percent raise in January 2012 and a 3 percent hike in January 2013.

That left state workers with a freeze in their base pay for this two-year period on top of one experienced by many the previous two years.

Public employee unions voluntarily agreed in 2009 to take a two-year freeze in their base pay because of declining state revenues during the national recession. Under the deal, those making less than $45,000 received a one-time $450 payment, while those making $45,000 or more saw their base pay frozen.

Negotiating the deal were the MEA-MFT, Montana Public Employees Association and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 9.

Union members praised Schweitzer and his administration for agreeing to the deal.

“Public employees have had their wages frozen for approximately three years,” said one of the negotiators, Charlie Martin, a state probation and parole officer, whose local is represented by MEA-MFT. “This agreement honors the hard work and the dedication of all state employees across Montana.”

Dan Dolan, president of MPEA’s board of directors, said, “As state employees, we have helped shoulder the economic recovery of the state of Montana. But our work has just started. We need to change some minds and change some opinions.”

Doug Rotondi, a treatment technician at the Montana Chemical Dependency Center in Butte, whose local is represented by AFSCME, said, “The retention of state employees is very important to the people of Montana, and with this economic package that we received today, it will bring us closer to being compensated fairly with those in the private sector.”

Schweitzer, who was in Washington state attending a Western Governors’ Association meeting, had no immediate comment.

In response to a question, Larry Nielsen of the MEA-MFT said he was “very confident” about the chances of the Legislature passing the pay deal next year.

He said he was confident that the 15,000 to 16,000 state employees had the “dedication to go out and do the right thing, to elect the right Legislature and to lobby that Legislature and to guarantee that state employees are honored for the hard work they do.”

Nielsen said there is sufficient money in the state general fund surplus, which tops $400 million, to pay for the plan.

The unions originally asked for raises of 6 percent each year, while the state countered with raises of 4 percent. On Monday, the state agreed to unions’ proposal for 5 percent raises each year.

After the 2011 Legislature rejected the pay deal, the three public employee unions filed an unfair labor complaint against the Legislature. Last month, the state Board of Personnel Appeals dismissed the unions’ complaint. The unions said then they may appeal that decision to District Court.

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