Could state employees still get a 5 and 5 pay plan?

The president of the state’s largest public employee union said Wednesday he will still try to negotiate five percent base pay raises for state employees each of the next two years even though lawmakers only appropriated 75-percent of the funds necessary to do so.

“The bill as introduced had five and five on July one,” MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver said, “but you can make five and five happen anytime.”Legislators cut $38 million from the pay plan bill originally negotiated between employee unions and former-Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Conservative lawmakers argued a full five and five plan was too expensive and would be giving pay increases to many employees who had received other types of raises over the past couple of years. These Republicans wanted a leaner pay plan that specifically requested the governor and unions give greater emphasis to the minority of state employees who have not received any raises for more than four years.

“We see that as a legislative encouragement, but not a mandate,” Feaver said. “It doesn’t say ‘you will do this’ and, in fact, we would believe that would be violative of collective bargaining.”

Feaver said MEA-MFT is standing firm on negotiating the five and five. He says the state can get there by delaying the implementation of raises, lowering their overall cost.

“If you start (the 5 and 5) January 1, you save $34 million,” Feaver said, although he advocates starting at the beginning of October.

“It’s a big priority to me to make sure that we do this the best way that we can with the money that was given to us,” Gov. Steve Bullock said. He said his first priority is to start working through the 200 or so bills delivered to his desk after the close of the 2013 Legislature. Afterward, he said his administration will begin negotiations on the state pay plan–probably in the next few weeks.

Republican infighting, Democrat wins and the new Senate race

Johnson, Mauk & Dennison 3SMALLTonight on “Capitol Talk”, our weekly legislative analysis program, News Director Sally Mauk talks with Lee newspaper reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison about the growing split in the Republican party, who won and lost what in this legislative session, and the week’s political stunner: Senator Baucus’s decision not to seek re-election…

Senate gives initial approval to pension fixes

State Senators have given initial approval to a pair of bills seeking to fix the state’s public employee pension systems.

A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans passed the bills.

The measures fund long-term debt that faces the state’s two biggest retirement plans.

Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce says some Republicans don’t think that is going to work.

Montana grants land easements for Keystone XL Pipeline

The Montana Land Board has voted to grant easements for the Keystone XL pipeline.

These leases would allow the company Trans-Canada to build their pipeline through property owned by the state of Montana as long as the project passes environmental review.

The controversial proposed pipeline still has a long process ahead of it before construction can begin.

The last action item of Governor Brian Schweitzer’s last meeting with the Montana Land Board was an item of national interest on Monday–granting nearly 40 land easements to the Keystone XL Pipeline.

TransCanada needs these easements to cross the Keystone Pipeline through parcels of state land as it makes its way south. The controversial pipeline would run from oil sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas.

Supporters say the project would help the US toward its goal of North American energy independence and also say it would create jobs.

Opponents fault the environmental impacts from Keystone. Several of those critics made their opinions known to the Land Board. College student Colton Hash pointed out extracting oil from the Canadian tar sands results in the release of more greenhouse gas emissions than more conventional measures.

“The impacts from climate change we should be taking very seriously especially in relation to Montana’s agriculture and Montana’s wildfires,” Hash said.

“We are not dealing with your everyday crude oil in this pipeline,” said Executive Director of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

The tar extracted from the sands in Canada needs to be mixed with chemicals in order to produce a type of synthetic crude oil. Jensen says this mixture has not been properly tested for its impacts on aquatic environments, and the 36 inch wide keystone pipeline would cross under several Montana rivers.

TransCanada says it has agreed to bury the pipeline 40 feet beneath the bed of major Montana rivers.

Governor Schweitzer says those with environmental concerns are coming to the wrong place in making these arguments.

“Asking the Land Board to assess the environmental capabilities of any particular case would be like going to an auto mechanic and asking him to fix your jet,” Schweitzer said.

Schweitzer says the Land Board simply votes whether or not to grant leases or easements for these types of projects.

A company like TransCanada cannot move forward with their project unless it passes the permitting process at the Department of Environmental Quality. Keystone has passed this permitting from DEQ.

It’s just another step in a long process for the pipeline.

The project faces court battles in other states. Keystone also needs Presidential approval for crossing international borders.

Montana gets paid once this Presidential permit is granted.

The Land Board sold the 50-year easements to TransCanada for over $740 thousand dollars. The money would go to Montana schools.

Schweitzer touts state employee clinic to US Health and Human Services Representative

Governor Brian Schweitzer is not missing an opportunity to push forward his agenda—right up to the end of his term.

Schweitzer met with the regional director of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

He used the meeting to tout his state employee health clinic in Helena.

Schweitzer also argued for Montana being able to import lower cost pharmaceuticals from Canada, which he has been advocating since before his first run for Governor.

“This is a model for how health care ought to be delivered in this country,” Schweitzer said to U.S. Health and Human Services Regional Director Marguerite Salazar.

He was talking about the Health Clinic his administration opened this Summer in Helena. Only state employees can use the clinic and the money for it comes directly from the fund used for the health insurance of those employees. Schweitzer says it saves money through focusing on preventive care and by paying staff salary or by the hour to lower unnecessary procedures.

“Our employees don’t make a dime more or a dime less if they give more procedures to each patient,” he said. “Their job is a healthy outcome.”

Regional Director Salazar says Health and Human Services is paying attention to the clinic. It Is the first of its kind in the country and Salazar calls it innovative.

“And that’s why I want to go visit it so I can take it back to the other states and see if this is something they would like to do,” Salazar said.

Schweitzer says he wants to see the clinic expand beyond Helena.

“Unfortunately, today we only have one of those clinics,” he said. “We would like to offer that clinic service to state employees across the state of Montana but as time goes on we will get those clinics open as well.”

He says he would eventually like to see the idea grow into a sort of public health option for all Montanans.

Schweitzer leaves office at the end of the year, to be replaced by fellow-democrat Steve Bullock. Bullock has expressed support for the clinics but has not been specific about a timetable for expanding them.

Governor Schweitzer did tell Director Salazar there is one thing holding the health clinic back, not being able to purchase pharmaceuticals and what he calls a ‘world price.’

“That’s why we’ve asked the Secretary to do what she has been given the authority to do which is to grant Montana the right to re-import medicine from Canada,” he said, meaning US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Schweitzer has been fighting for this idea since his unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate in the year 2000. He says Medicare Part D passed in 2003 has prevented the Federal Government from negotiating the prices of prescription drugs. As a result, he says, drugs are cheaper north of the border, which is why he has been asking Secretary Sebelius to import them.

“I think you’ve asked her at least three times officially?” Regional Director Salazar asked.

“Well if you think it would help to ask again I’d be more than willing to do that,” Schweitzer said, following with, “but when you identify a problem and you provide a solution and nobody can think of a reason why it’s not a good idea and you can’t get a response. What do you think we think out here in Montana?”

“I know the secretary has considered it, even though she hasn’t given him a response, I think it’s because she doesn’t know what yet her decision will be,” Salazar said in an interview after the meeting. She says Secretary Sebelius is truly worried about the safety of medications across the border.

“Because we don’t know what they are and that’s her number one concern, she doesn’t have enough people in the FDA to be able to monitor and check all these drugs,” she said.

Importing prescription drugs from Canada will probably not be an accomplishment Brian Schweitzer can add to his gubernatorial legacy. Yet, the Regional Director of US Health and Human Services said she wanted to hold the meeting with Schweitzer to tell him what a good job she thought he has done in office.

And she did not leave without getting an autograph.

Governor Schweitzer presents final budget

Governor Brian Schweitzer hands $2 calculators to Lee Newspaper reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison following Schweitzer’s last budget presentation on Thursday

Governor Brian Schweitzer has released the final state budget of his tenure.  He says the budget provides a roadmap for the 2013 legislature and Governor-Elect Steve Bullock as they discuss Montana’s finances in the coming months.

Schweitzer’s recommendations are in no way binding to either Bullock or the Legislature, but the Schweitzer budget will likely be used as the starting point. The popular, two-term Governor used the presentation of the final budget to tout what he sees as the successes of his Administration. Schweitzer also put forth a list of priorities he hopes the state keeps pushing forward when he leaves office.

Governor Schweitzer begins his last budget press conference after just returning from a week and a half-long trip to the Caribbean.

“I’m back from having my toes in the sand and a beer in my hand,” Schweitzer said.

In just a few weeks he’ll be handing over the reigns of Montana’s government to fellow Democrat Steve Bullock.

“Our last, most important duty is to pass a budget along to the next administration,” he said. A budget that continues the Schweitzer legacy of large, record-setting surpluses, which the Governor points out with characteristic tongue-in-cheek humility.

“Our cash in the bank today is actually $469,758,700 dollars and 47 cents…so we’re about ten times more than they’d had in history, let’s move along,” he said.

Schweitzer’s last budget focuses on the three biggest pieces of that budget, which he labels as education, medication and incarceration. Those three combine to make almost 88 percent of the budget.

“And it really matters to the people of Montana that we get these things right,” he said.

For education, which makes up half of a budget, he wants to invest $67 million into K-12 education. Schweitzer wants to freeze college tuition for the next two years by injecting $34 million dollars in the Montana University System. He says decisions like that in the past have led to recent reports showing Montana increasing its rate of those with a college degree at the fastest rate in the nation.

For the medication component Schweitzer seemed to reverse an earlier position on the state paying for the Medicaid expansion included in the Affordable Care Act. In the past, Schweitzer has expressed reservations about how much this could cost in the long term. But now, he says the state should spend $5 million dollars to get additional funding from the federal government to pay for Medicaid expansion.

“To get 80 thousand Montanans covered with health care, 80 thousand,” he said.

And for incarceration, Schweitzer wants to add $30 million dollars to the department of corrections. Schweitzer says most of the people in prison have drug or alcohol problems, he wants to increase funding for rehabilitation programs.

“To get people ready to go back into society,” he said.

Outside of those big three, Schweitzer touted his plan to fix the state’s ailing employee pension systems. The current funding model has those systems over $3 billion dollars in debt over the next 30 years. Schweitzer’s plan asks for higher contributions from both state employees and their employers as well as adding money from natural resource development.

He wants to boost state employee pay 5 percent each of the two years. Schweitzer advocates an $88 million dollar bonding bill for construction projects for the Montana Historical Society and at state Colleges and universities. He says this bill could create over 21 hundred jobs.

“We’re proposing this bonding bill to the next legislature and shame on them if they don’t pass it,” he said.

But the next legislature will be controlled by Republicans and they will be coming with their own priorities for the budget, including the nearly $470 million dollar surplus.

A spokesman for Governor-Elect Steve Bullock says they have just received Schweitzer’s budget and will be reviewing it before making their modifications.




‘FRONTLINE’ program inspires protest against corporate political spending

American Tradition Partnership Legal Counsel James Brown offers Halloween candy to protesters Wednesday

The group American Tradition Partnership, formerly known as Western Tradition Partnership, has been responsible for many of Montana’s campaign laws being thrown out this year. An ATP lawsuit led to the U.S. Supreme Court throwing out Montana’s century old Corrupt Practices Act, which banned corporations from spending in Montana elections.

Tuesday night, the PBS program FRONTLINE focused on American Tradition Partnership and its influence on Montana election, finding evidence of ATP illegally coordinating with candidates in Montana.

ATP is not taking those allegations lightly.

Supporters of a Montana ballot measure seeking to get corporate money out of elections protested outside the Lewis and Clark Library in Helena Wednesday. They were hearing from Governor Brian Schweitzer the U.S. Supreme Court is wrong in ruling money equals speech.

“Money isn’t speech,” Schweitzer boomed to the crowd, “It doesn’t cost a damn dime to stand up and speak to the citizens of this country!”

The ballot measure is Initiative-166. Campaign Treasurer C.B. Pearson said the rally was organized in response to the FRONTLINE program “Big Sky, Big Money” aired earlier this week.

“It may end up being the biggest political scandal Montana has had in over 100 years,” Pearson said.

Missoula paralegal Kristin Marshall said she drove down to Helena just to protest in the rally. She said the FRONTLINE program gave her some definitive evidence about the money flowing into Montana politics from nonprofit corporations like American Tradition Partnership.

The show looks to see how the United States Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision is affecting politics. That decision allows corporations or unions to spend unlimited money on politics as long as that money is independent of campaigns and the candidates themselves.

The program correspondent in “Big Sky, Big Money” and host of American Public Media’s ‘Marketplace’ Kai Ryssdal says people often miss the main point of the Citizens United decision.

“Which is this idea of independent expenditures,” Ryssdal said. “The court said specifically these expenditures have to be independent and as a result will not corrupt.”

Ryssdal says what the episode does is provide evidence that American Tradition Partnership had been coordinating with candidates. That evidence was a box of campaign documents found in a Colorado meth house, containing surveys from conservative candidates in Montana, and campaign mailers saying they were paid by the campaigns but appear to be coordinated by American Tradition Partnership.

The former director of strategic programming for the group, Christian Lefer, says the documents were in his wife’s car, which was stolen. ATP says the Office of Political Practices has had the documents for a year and a half without making any accusations of wrongdoing.

Helmville Republican representative Mike Miller was one of the candidates with a questionnaire in the box of discovered campaign materials. Miller said in an email response to questions that there has been no coordination between himself and ATP. He filled out a survey, but says he has done that many times.

Frontline’s Kai Ryssdal says that does make sense.

“It is entirely possible that candidates did not know what they were getting involved with when they filled out these questionaires. Candidates get as you know, questionairres from all kinds of groups, independent groups, outsite groups you name it, they want to know where candidates stand on their specific issues,” Ryssdal said.

Ryssdal says that’s one of the questions he’s still left with after working on “Big Sky, Big Money”; how much did these candidates know about their dealings with American Tradition Partnership? It’s not the only question.

“I think the bigger question is the one the FRONTLINE story tried to answer, which is how much does it matter whether citizens are able to know the sources of funding in campaigns and candidacies. We don’t have the answer yet and reasonable people disagree,” he said.

The Helena protesters later marched to the office of Attorney James Brown, legal counsel for American Tradition Partnership and a prominent character in the FRONTLINE program.

He was waiting for them with a large tin filled with Halloween Candy. Brown offered the candy to the loud, ridiculing protesters.

“You know, you can sit here and harass me for engaging in free speech and association,” he said. “The fact of the matter is you’re free to engage in your right to peacefully assemble, my clients are free to engage in their free speech and association rights. I think you should respect their rights as much.”

He faulted the group for coming to his office and protesting his work as an attorney. He asked them instead to seek to strengthen disclosure laws through local lawmakers.

“Your remedies are with the legislature not with attorneys for groups trying to protect their first amendment rights,” Brown said.


Schweitzer stepping up support for Democratic candidates in final days of election

Governor Brian Schweitzer (D) makes calls for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock on Tuesday

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer enjoys a 60 percent approval rating, but has not been spending much of that political capital to help democratic candidates locked in tight races across the state.

A Friday Press Conference in Great Falls shows that’s all changing here in the last few weeks before voting day.

Schweitzer says the state may be facing a constitutional crisis if Republican Rick Hill is elected to replace him. He accuses former Congressman Hill of risky, reckless behavior for his acceptance of a contested half-million dollar donation from the State GOP.

That donation is well over the $20 thousand limit the state has in place.

The Hill campaign says the donation was given during a short window when those contribution limits were temporarily tossed out by a Judge. The case involving the donation is still before the courts right now.

Schweitzer says he will be handing over the Governor’s office in January. If the court’s find Hill guilty of this violation, Schweitzer says the law is clear.

“If you have received these funds in violation of the campaign law, then you are not eligible for the office in which you’re running and if you’ve already been elected then you will be removed from office,” Schweitzer said.

Schweitzer says this happened to a Cascade County Sheriff in the 1940s. He also says Montana law is unclear who would be appointed Governor if Hill were removed.

Schweitzer says Hill could rectify this issue by returning the half million dollars to the State GOP. The Hill Campaign says it’s keeping the money as of now.

Montana GOP Executive Director Bowen Greenwood calls this showboating by Governor Schweitzer that’s distracting voters from the issues.

“There’s one thing that’s at the center of this race for Governor and that’s that Rick Hill is the candidate to create more jobs at better wages for Montanans and that’s the message we’re trying to get out. I think the people of Montana are probably pretty disappointed that the democrats have nothing but political process stories to talk about,” Greenwood said.

Greenwood also correctly points out the only candidate for Governor who has been found guilty of campaign finance violations at this point is Democrat Steve Bullock. The state deputy commissioner for political practices says the Bullock campaign violated election rules by writing 11 checks that were signed by someone other than the campaign’s treasurer or deputy treasurer. Bullock campaign officials say staff members signed the checks when the treasurer was out sick and they didn’t know then it was against the rules.


Earlier this week, Schweitzer helped out making calls for Bullock.

“April, this is Brian Schweitzer, I’m here in campaign headquarters and I’m supporting Steve Bullock,” Schweitzer said into his cell phone Tuesday.

“Well, here’s what I need you to do, I need you to spend that night with your mother in law and make sure she’s voting for Steve Bullock too,” Schweitzer said. “Thanks cowgirl, love ya. Bye.”

Schweitzer was actually sitting right by Democratic Candidate Steve Bullock. Bullock’s campaign office in Helena is headquartered downtown in a space still retaining the multicolored walls from its previous status as a Taco del sol restaurant.

Campaign staff and volunteers sit at plastic folding tables with their cell phones and scanning lists.

“To call folks we already know have received ballots, and they haven’t sent their ballots in,” Schweitzer said.

Governor Schweitzer has been stepping up his support of Democratic candidates in the closing days of the 2012 election.

Putting out ads and campaigning for statewide Democratic candidates and some legislative candidates too.

Schweitzer has also been vocal in his support for Initiative 166, but that actually goes back to the Spring.

But again, a lot of the focus now seems to be on the Governor’s office  .

“We have a lot invested, all of us in Montana, and me maybe even more than some and I want to make sure Montana continues in the same direction and Steve Bullock is the guy to get it done,” Schweitzer said.

“Is it also important for your legacy?” I asked “To see that voters put Steve Bullock in your place when you leave, is that sort of a vindication of your record?”

“We’re not looking for any kind of vindication,” Schweitzer said. “What I’m concerned about is I’ve got children and my kids are gonna want to stay in Montana and they’re gonna want good paying jobs. Nancy and I want to make sure that this Montana we love continues going in the right direction.”

As for the direction of the state’s highest profile race, the Tester-Rehberg Senate matchup–Schweitzer is staying out of that one. This despite being a very vocal supporter of Tester’s when he was first elected in 2006.

“Jon Tester is a well-known commodity, people know and trust Jon Tester and of course unlike Steve Bullock or some of these other candidates in Montana, They’re basically talking to us about seven times every 30 minutes on our televisions at home and they’re talking to us on the radio,” Schweitzer said.

Schweitzer hopes his popularity will translate into some more Democratic votes for candidates who aren’t getting quite so much airtime.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Schweitzer justifies trips in final months in office

Governor Brian Schweitzer is returning to Montana tonight after a few days of meetings in Washington D.C.

Last week, Schweitzer spent a few days in China meeting with companies about exporting Montana products.

Meanwhile, the latest round of attacks flying around the U.S. Senate Race between Jon Tester and Denny Rehberg concern accusations of unwarranted trips on the government dime.

In D.C., Governor Brian Schweitzer has been meeting with the departments of Interior and Energy, another meeting regarding a pork processing plant he’s trying to help facilitate in Shelby. Of course, he didn’t miss his opportunity to stop in at CNN.

Schweitzer says regular meetings with Federal Agencies are a part of the job.

“For better or for worse, it’s a partnership of the states and the federal government. 25 percent of the land in Montana is owned by the federal government and we’ve got to build this partnership,” Schweitzer said.

The Governor is leaving office at the end of the year due to term limits, to be replaced by either Democrat Attorney General Steve Bullock or former Republican Congressman Rick Hill. The rumor mill has been running wild with questions about what Schweitzer may do next—maybe a 2016 Presidential bid or perhaps a cabinet post.

“Any of those meetings include talks of plans for your future sir?” I asked Schweitzer.

“No (laughs) no. I think most people know that I love Montana and my future is in Montana.”

Schweitzer’s recent trip to China was spurred by him being invited to speak at an international energy conference.

“Shared the panel with a couple of Nobel Prize Laureates so I was a little intimidated.”

He also used the opportunity to visit companies where he’s trying to work out export deals. He says the emerging markets for Montana commodities are immense.

“100 percent of the copper ore produced in Montana currently goes to China, has for years. They have an active interest in increasing their purchases of meat in the United States and that’s why we’re working on this pork processing plant.”

The Governor also pursued opportunities for exporting platinum, palladium, wheat, barley and coal.

“This being again, your final months in office, do you feel you have to change your conversations, do you have to change your approach since you won’t be the man you’re dealing with in a few months?” I asked.

“Everybody understands that we have a democracy in this country and whoever is elected to an office at some point in the not too distant future that personality will no longer be in that office. You represent the office and you represent the state of Montana, that’s my mission… I don’t represent myself as a personality, that’s what I do as a private businessman and that’s what I’ll be doing in the future.”

Until then, Schweitzer stands behind his final trips around the country and around the world as the Governor of Montana.

“Well, I don’t think there’s anybody in Montana that thinks Brian Schweitzer just loves going to Washington D.C. I’ve made that abundantly obvious in the past. And there are a lot of destinations around the world, almost all destinations around the world are far superior to going to China if you want to be a tourist.”