Subscribe for 17¢ / day

UPDATE 1:45 p.m. :

HELENA - Legislative committees today heard bills to give pay raises to judges and start providing between-session monthly expense allowances to legislators.

The judicial pay hike bill appears headed for a quick death.

Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, the sponsor of the judicial pay raise bill, quickly asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to table his Senate Bill 50. Shockley, a lawyer, said the state couldn’t afford the pay raises because of the state’s fiscal problems.

At present, the pay survey examines salaries for District Court judges and Supreme Court justices in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana every two years. Montana judicial pay is adjusted to the five-state average every two years.

Shockley’s bill would have provided for an annual salary and excluded Montana from the average.

At present, the Supreme Court chief justice makes $115,160 annually, while the other six justices make $113,964 and district judges make $106,870.

A budget office analysis showed that the bill would raise the chief justice’s annual pay to $122,405 in fiscal 2012, while Supreme Court justices’ pay would go to $121,471 and district judges to $114,429.

It estimated the extra costs of Shockley’s bill at $2.14 million over the four-year period ending in fiscal 2013.

The other measure, House Bill 145, by Rep. Dave McAlpin, D-Missoula, would give legislators an allowance up to $200 a month for each month the Legislature is not in session. He envisioned legislators submitting receipts for their actual expenses and getting reimbursed for travel costs, phone bills and photocopying costs related to constituent service between sessions.

At present, legislators are paying for these expenses between sessions out of their own pockets. They are paid a salary and a per diem expense allowance only when they are in their 90-day, every-other-year sessions and when they have interim committee assignments during the interim.

This allowance would be paid 20 months every 24 months and would cost $1.3 million over four years.

"I don’t think it’s anything akin to a pay raise," McAlpin told the House State Administration Committee, adding: "I think it is important for us to be honest about what it takes to serve our constituents."

He introduced the bill at the request of the bipartisan Legislative Council, which brainstormed some ideas on how to improve the Legislature and make it easier to recruit candidates.

Rather, he portrayed the allowance as a means to give the legislative branch of government more influence compared to the other full-time branches of government.

"We should stand up for this branch of government," McAlpin said. "We are an equal branch of government to the other two (executive and judicial branches)."

Given the financial constraints the state faces because of the economic downturn, McAlpin said he would be willing to lower the $200-per-month allowance.

Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, said she can easily travel around her district, but expressed concern for lawmakers from some geographically large districts in Eastern Montana.

"This is not about ourselves getting enough money for a tank of gas," she said. "It’s about making sure our constituents get service."

Rep. Dennis Himmelberger, R-Billings, agreed and suggested lawmakers already absorb personal costs exceeding the proposed allowance.

"I don’t think there’s a person here who won’t be spending well over $200 a month now," he said.

The administrator of the Legislative Services Division, Susan Byorth Fox, suggested all legislators get the $200-a-month allowance instead of requiring legislators to submit receipts and reimbursing them. A receipt-reimbursement system would require more paperwork and raise administrative costs, she said.

The committee didn’t vote on McAlpin’s bill today.