The Billings Outpost

Should Montana follow Wisconsin’s lead on pay?

Political Potpourri

Brad Molnar

Gentle readers may recall during the last legislative session when Democratic lawmakers hid in Chicago to avoid voting on a measure that tied public employees’ pay raises to the rate of inflation and mandated they pay for part of their health care costs.

So the governor dispatched the Highway Patrol to search the honky-tonks and bars of Lakeside Drive, wrangling a quorum to finish his legislative agenda.

No, silly, it wasn’t Brian Schweitzer (D). It was Republican Scott Walker, the newly elected governor of Wisconsin. We had to settle for our governor wielding small, medium and large branding irons to veto Republican bills he labeled “bat crap crazy” as Republican leadership whined in the shadows claiming Schweitzer was not playing nice and people were getting tired of his shenanigans.

Wisconsin unions went to court claiming they had a right to negotiate through collective bargaining with the state’s chief executive and the outcome was binding on the Legislature. They lost. This was not change they could believe in, so they generated hope by gathering 900,000 signatures to force a recall election on June 5.

Before registering his brands, Schweitzer put a modest 1 percent in 2012 and 3 percent in 2013 in pay raises in the budget for state employees. He said it was a hardnosed negotiation, but the bat bit pointed out he was negotiating with his political donors and supporters, behind closed doors, so how hard could it have been? Several well rehearsed quips later, Republicans killed the pay raise.

This meant no raise in four years for state employees, or as they like to say, “With inflation we are actually going backwards.” The expected strike during the session never happened. The teachers’ union filed an unfair labor practice charge challenging the capacity of the Legislature to reject a settlement negotiated with the governor. They lost at every turn, but their membership liked the show. Dang that constitution. The only threatened strike was by the snowplow operators during a snowstorm. They got their raise; timing is everything.

Pay and benefits will come up again next session. Depending on the outcome of the governor’s race and control of the Legislature, it either will, or may, happen. Perhaps even a constitutional amendment will be offered allowing binding arbitration.

During a lull in riveting discussions on wolf control I asked the gubernatorial candidates how they felt about binding arbitration vs. legislative control in the budget. Most were not modest.

• Neil Livingstone (R): “Public employee unions give me heartburn. They should not be able to hold the public hostage. I would reduce their numbers by 10 percent, but I favor merit pay.” Gov. Walker has given $765,000 in bonus pay.

• Jim O’Hara (R): “As a county commissioner, I froze wages for the last two of three years. We may need to freeze their wages again, but at least they would still have jobs.”

• Corey Stapleton (R) normally answers in detail, but this time: “Yes, I would look at whatever the Legislature wanted to do.”

• Ken Miller (R): “I would support legislation similar to Wisconsin’s. Our retirement programs show huge deficits, and the Legislature is responsible for the solvency of the programs so should be responsible for the necessary adjustments to protect taxpayers.”

• Rick Hill (R): What the Wisconsin Supreme Court did was clarify that the Legislature could define wages and benefits. The Montana Constitution places the authority of appropriation in the hands of the Legislature. That is the way it needs to be.”

• Jim Lynch (R) “The Legislature must be the final check. We cannot cherry pick which issues they can look at. They need the whole picture.”

• Bob Fanning (R) did not respond.

• Larry Jent (D) favored binding arbitration, but dropped out the day before the filing deadline.

• This is the second time Steve Bullock (D) has ignored my request for his position on a subject. When I talked to him at the Butte St. Patrick’s Day parade, he promised he would call … dang.

Because Wisconsin is an Obama-Romney battleground state, the recall vote is actually of national significance and wrongly considered a test of union power. Google Wisconsin Recall Vote and both sides will show you how to donate.

Walker has already raised more than $25 million and the other guy just got elected to take him on, but I doubt that he will have to self fund. If Walker loses, he would be the third governor in the history of the state to be recalled.

 

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