The $4 billion question facing the Legislature’s new pension committee

Members of the Legislative Joint Subcommittee on Pensions meets in the Capitol Tuesday

Members of the Legislative Joint Select Committee on Pensions meets in the Capitol Tuesday

The 12-members of the Montana Legislature’s new Joint Select Committee on Pensions have a tough job ahead of them–finding a solution to the state’s indebted retirement systems that will pass both a Republican-controlled Legislature and a Democratic Governor’s Office.

Latest figures put the total debt faced by Montana’s pension programs at over $4 billion over the next 30 years. The vast majority of this ‘unfunded liability’ stems from the state’s two largest  pensions, the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) and Teachers Retirement System (TRS).

The Legislature’s majority leadership, Senate President Jeff Essman (R-Billings) and House Speaker Mark Blasdel (R-Somers) appointed the eight Republicans and four Democrats to the pension committee, which Lee Newspapers points out caused some frustration from the minority, who feel 8-4 doesn’t accurately reflect the Republican-Democratic split in the Legislature.

The pension committee invited members of the House and Senate State Administration Committees to listen in on the first meeting, hearing broad descriptions of the problems from legislative staff.

“It definitely is like trying to drink from a firehose on day one,” said first-term Representative and House State Administration Committee Member Casey Schreiner (D-Great Falls) about the complexity of the issue. It’s one that has been labeled as a top-priority for the 2013 Legislature. “Every citizen in the state of Montana has some vested interest in us having our pension systems where they need to be for longevity purposes,” Schreiner said.

Democratic Governor Steve Bullock has released a proposal to fix the pensions, one which closely resembles the one put out by former Governor Brian Schweitzer last year. It calls for higher contributions from public employees, their employers, and an infusion of revenue from natural resource development. Bullock calls it a balanced approach that has the support of the state’s largest teacher’s union (MEA-MFT) as well as the Montana Association of Counties and the Montana League of Cities and Towns.

Pension committee chair Senator Dave Lewis (R-Helena) hopes for a different approach. He wants the state to move away from the current pension system and put new state employees on 401(k) plans, an idea rejected by Democrats. That would put less financial responsibility on the state but employees would have less retirement certainty due to changes in the stock market.

“I think it’s inevitable,” Lewis said. “For public employees it’s going to be very difficult to get there, because we have to pay off the liability to the existing retirees, but we’re still going to have to move toward that.” Sen. Lewis has put forward his ideas in a bill for consideration by the committee, but he’s certainly not the only one.

“Almost every legislator up here has something they think we should fix,” Lewis said about the committee. He says his goal is to finalize the proposals from the Joint Select Committee on Pensions for presentation to the full legislature by the end of February.

Chuck, Sally and Mike talk about the Republican rift…

Johnson, Mauk & Dennison 3SMALLE-mails published this week show a calculated plan by the current Republican leadership in the Montana Senate to oust the previous leaders – adding to the growing rift between conservative and moderate Republicans. In this edition of “Capitol Talk”, our weekly legislative analysis program, News Director Sally Mauk talks with Lee newspaper reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, about what that rift might mean both for the Republican and Democratic legislative agendas…










GOP Leaders react to emails indicating division in party, encourage unity

Senate President Jeff Essman (R-Billings), center,  speaks with the Senate GOP Caucus Thursday

Senate President Jeff Essman (R-Billings), center, speaks with the Senate GOP Caucus Thursday

Republican leaders in the Montana Senate are reacting to a series of emails showing a sharp divide between the moderate and conservative factions of their party.

 The private emails obtained by the Great Falls Tribune speak of a long-term strategy of Senate President Jeff Essman (R-Billings) to create an atmosphere leading to a more conservative Legislature and a more conservative Montana Supreme Court. In the emails, Essman suggested moderate Republicans could ‘derail the conservative agenda.’ He said moderates were in a position to block such an agenda if they decide to align with Democrats.

But on Thursday afternoon, Essman tried to alleviate sore feelings about the emails during a Senate Republican Caucus meeting. He said he’s always been consistent about his agenda to create a ‘conservative, balanced budget.’ He assured the group he was elected Senate President to serve the whole body, Republicans and Democrats.

“My responsibility to them is to make sure their bills get a fair hearing and that the rights of the minority are respected,” he said.

Essman defeated 2011 Senate President Jim Peterson (R-Buffalo)a, who did run for re-election. Peterson is seen as more moderate by comparison, and was referred to several times in the emails among Essman, Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, Majority Whip Eric Moore and Senators Jason Priest, Ed Walker and Dave Lewis.

The emails speak about not being able to trust Peterson not to work with Democrats, calling him a chump. Peterson said he finds the emails unbelievable, saying current leadership seems to be making no room for those he calls ‘Reagan Republicans.’

“You know, Reagan prided himself on being able to hear both sides of a conversation and finding a solution. And here that’s getting tougher to do…without feeling your future being jeopardized,” Peterson said.

Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich (R-Bozeman) doesn’t shy away from saying he was strategizing for a way to promote his world view in the emails.

“It’s not just conservatism, I think there are other things that we were concerned about,” he said. “Frankly, we wanted strategic thought, we wanted competence in our leadership.”

He said the ideological debate going on within the GOP is a discussion happening across the country and that the emails don’t change the intentions of his party to work across the aisle and within their own aisle to find common ground.

Marijuana advocates moving on after MT Supreme Court reverses injunction on SB 423

Proponents of medical marijuana reform passed by the state legislature are regrouping. This after the Montana Supreme Court reversed a lower court injunction blocking part of the reform this week. The reform bill still will go before voters this November.

The 2011 medical marijuana reform bill was passed by state Legislators as Senate Bill 423. It dramatically restricted use of the substance from the rules in the medical marijuana initiative passed by voters in 2004. Lawmakers were seeking to reign-in the number of people registering to use marijuana and shut down the burgeoning industry that accompanied it.

But, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association was quick to file suit against the law and District Judge Jim Reynolds last year blocked several parts of it from taking effect, saying it violated patients’ and providers’ constitutional rights to privacy and to pursue employment and health.

The Supreme Court reversed Reynolds injunctions this week. Billings Republican State Senator Jeff Essman Sponsored the reform bill in the legislature. He’s glad to see Judge Reynolds decisions struck down.

“Which, basically, as the Supreme Court found would have elevated access to medical marijuana to constitutional status,” Essman said.

The Supreme court does say an individual has a fundamental right to obtain and reject medical treatment. But, they also say, this right does not extend to give a patient a fundamental right to use any drug, regardless of its legality. Marijuana is still illegal federally.

Former marijuana lobbyist Tom Daubert just received five years probation for his role in a medical marijuana growing operation. He still describes the marijuana reform bill as repeal in disguise. He largely dismisses the high court’s ruling.

 “The Supreme Court didn’t judge the merits of the current law except regards constitutionality. They didn’t say it was a good law,” Daubert said.

Enough signatures were gathered to put the marijuana reform bill up to a public vote in November as IR-124. Daubert says more or less what the Supreme Court has done is put the issue squarely back in the laps of voters.

“Which I think is where it belongs, it was voters who made a compassionate decision, a smart decision 8 years ago,” Daubert said.

Voters will have the option to reject the law, but State Senator Jeff Essman predicts they won’t.

“We took important first steps to get a situation that was widely regarded as out of control under control,” he said.

However the vote for IR-124 comes out, Essman predicts the legislature will be taking up the issue again next session.

Meanwhile, Supreme Court Justices sent the case back to District Judge Reynolds with orders to review it under a less-strict standard.