Senate passes first state employee base pay raises in four years


The Montana Senate has passed a $116 million dollar two-year pay plan for state employees on a 37-13 vote.

It has already passed the House, but is heading back to that chamber for consideration of a Senate amendment.

Lawmakers have not given state employees base pay raises for more than four years. Senator Alan Olson (R-Roundup) said it’s time to give the raises to ensure the state retains a quality workforce.

“We want to permit coal mines, we want to permit oil wells, we want to build highways, and we need to have the qualified people there to do it,” Olson said. 

The bill removes a quarter of the funding from the $152 million pay plan originally negotiated by unions and former Governor Brian Schweitzer. That deal would have given all state employees a five percent raise each of the next two years. 

Several lawmakers complained the legislature is not included in those negotiations. Senator Rick Ripley (R-Wolf Creek) believes it’s a flawed system, saying “the whole problem is that there’s a negotiation that takes place and this body is not at the table and yet, (the legislature) comes back and is responsible for funding it.”

The new plan would give the smaller amount back to Governor Steve Bullock for re-negotiation, requesting special emphasis on the employees who have not received other types of raises over the past few years. The amendment added by the Senate also changes how future pay increases will be determined. Currently, the state compares the pay of similar government jobs in surrounding states as well as comparable jobs in the private sector in order to set wages. The amendment removes the consideration of the private sector.

“It is ironic that the legislature that wrote the law enabling the executive to give raises is now complaining about that very same law as a way to suppress what our employees are paid,” said the Governor’s budget director, Dan Villa. He says Governor Bullock is disappointed with the lower dollar amount in the pay plan and will be trying to convince the House to add more money back in as the body debates the Senate amendment.

State employees in 2009 volunteered to freeze their base pay as the Great Recession took hold. The 2011 Legislature rejected a smaller pay plan than that being considered now. Thus, base pay for employees have not gone up for more than four years. However, Republicans in favor of the smaller pay plan point out more than 60 percent of state employees have received other types of raises over the last few years.

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