Sen. Lewis considering ballot measure on 401(k) retirement plan for state employees

Sen. Dave Lewis (R-Helena) jokes with other lawmakers at his desk in the state Capitol Wednesday

Sen. Dave Lewis (R-Helena) jokes with other lawmakers at his desk in the state Capitol Wednesday

The chairman of a new committee tasked with finding a financial fix for the state’s indebted pension programs says he feels strongly enough about his proposal to move all future state employees to 401(k) retirement plans that he is “willing to think about the possibility of even taking it to the people” as a legislative referendum.

Montana’s retirement programs for state employees face a looming deficit of more than $4 billion over the course of the next 30 years. Basically, the state is not taking in enough money to pay those already in retirement, and the current trend is on a downward slide.

Putting the pensions back on track has been described as a top priority by the 2013 Legislature. Democratic Governor Steve Bullock’s office has put forth a plan which claims to make the programs solvent through increasing contributions from employees, employers and adding money from natural resource development.

Chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Pensions Dave Lewis (R-Helena) has for several sessions pitched an alternate plan to do away with pensions, otherwise called Defined Benefit Plans, and move toward Defined Contribution Plans, similar to 401(k) plans, for all future employees. “Anything short of moving in that direction doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. Lewis says the Governor’s office has shown they are not willing to consider that option, so he is considering proposing a ballot measure.

“It’s certainly not the preferred alternative,” Lewis said, “because if you put a complex issue on the ballot and have to go explain it to the public, that’s not a slam dunk situation…It’s an option, it’s always been an option, it’s constitutionally an option in Montana.”

The Montana Legislature has the ability to put specific bills on the ballot with a simple majority vote of both chambers, which the Republicans control this session. The GOP was successful at doing this in the 2011 Legislature, putting five measure up for a public vote. The Montana Supreme Court threw out two, but the other three were passed with wide support.

Emails obtained by Great Falls Capitol Bureau Chief John Adams indicate Senate President Jeff Essmann may use the “strategy of putting another 4 or 5 referendums on the 2014 ballot,” as a way to work around Governor Bullock’s veto pen.

Bullock’s Budget Director Dan Villa says the Governor’s Office is “eager and willing to work with Legislators who are eager and willing to work with the coalition that we’ve put together.”

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