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HELENA - A majority of three state-employee unions has voted to ratify a pay-plan agreement that freezes pay for many workers for the next two years and grants only a $450 lump-sum payment to those earning $45,000 or less annually.

Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, which represents teachers, school employees, state and local government employees, said the vote by his union members wasn't close, as they recognize that the state and nation are facing an economic crisis.

"We wanted to do as much as we could to preserve jobs," he said.

The other unions are the Montana Public Employees Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Together, the three unions represent about 11,000 state executive branch employees covered by the agreement.

Also Thursday, Montana's top statewide elected officials announced that they won't accept scheduled pay raises this year.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said they would freeze their pay and return the raises to the state, while Attorney General Steve Bullock, state Auditor Monica Lindeen and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said they will take their pay raises and donate them to charity.

"Montana charities have been hit hard by the financial crisis," Lindeen said. "There is no better time than now to help the small, local charities that serve Montanans in need."

"We are all in this together and the action today by the members of MEA-MFT, MPEA, AFSCME signals that we will get through this together," Schweitzer said Thursday. "Our state employees are some of the hardest working in the nation."

Elected officials' salaries are adjusted according to an average of corresponding officials' salaries in four surrounding states. The governor had been slated to receive a $4,281 increase; Bohlinger $4,386 increase; Bullock $10,l00; Juneau $5,361; Lindeen $3,284; and McCulloch $3,290.

The pay plan ratified by the unions will be in House Bill 13, which is sponsored by Rep. Chuck Hunter, D-Helena. The bill has yet to be heard by the House Appropriations Committee.

The ratified pay agreements include:

• The $450 lump-sum, one-time payment to about 5,000 employees earning a base salary of $45,000 or less, and a $225 payment to part-time workers who work at least 20 hours a week and earn less than $21.63 an hour. The payments would be made this July.

• A pay freeze over the next two years for the remaining 5,000 or so workers earning higher salaries.

• A $53 per-employee increase in the state contribution for health insurance premiums in fiscal 2010, which starts in July, and a $54 increase in the state contribution for health insurance in fiscal 2011.

• A requirement that the state involve the unions in negotiations if it needs to lay off more than 25 people.

• An allowance for the contract to be reopened if the state's fiscal situation improves and the governor calls a special session to revise the state budget.

Schweitzer said the agreement is fair to taxpayers and reasonable for state workers. "I wish it could have been more, but these are difficult times," he said.

The labor agreement covers executive branch employees, but does not affect legislative or judicial employees or university system employees.

Legislative and judicial branches usually give their employees the same percentage raises as those negotiated with the executive branch. The University System has its own separate negotiations.

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