HELENA – After four years of pay freezes, state employees are still waiting to hear whether they will receive an across-the-board 5 percent raise over each of the next two years.
Roughly two dozen people supported House Bill 13 at a January hearing before the House Appropriations Committee. That measure finally surfaced for a vote last Wednesday when Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena, made the motion.
But he was the only Republican who joined Democrats on the GOP-controlled committee. The measure failed, but that didn’t stop the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kathy Swanson, D-Anaconda, from trying to revive it on the House floor the next day.
“Since 4:08 yesterday afternoon, my phone has been blowing up,” she told House members. “I have visited with a single mother of three who sobbed in despair wondering if she should start looking to move, to disrupt her children and try to find work out of Montana.”
Swanson tried to blast the bill out of committee and onto the floor, a procedural move that requires a supermajority. But Republicans said they weren’t ready to vote. Many, including the Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, argued that the “freeze” didn’t apply to all state workers.
Ankney said the state paid out more than $18 million in raises over the past four years to certain state employees and it’s taking time to find out who received that money.
“It’s ridiculous when we can give that much money to some employees, and some employees don’t get anything,” Ankney said. “I’m working for those people that didn’t get anything.”
Lawmakers considered several other big-ticket items last week, including possible solutions to the expected shortages in state pension funds, the session’s main budget bill, and the governor’s plan to reform Montana’s campaign finance laws. Here’s a look at those highlights and others from week 10 at the Legislature:
Several competing plans to fix Montana’s pension system are making their way through the session. Last week, the panel tasked with solving the 30-year, $4 billion pension shortfall gave up trying to agree on one solution and advanced three different plans for the Legislature’s consideration.
“You can’t meld those,” said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, chairman of the pensions committee. “These are policy choices the Legislature is going to have to make.”
One proposal, House Bill 338, comes from a Republican. It would change state pensions from a defined benefit to a defined contribution system for new employees.
A defined contribution system would mean that employees participate in a system similar to a 401(k) plan, which would provide them with a payout when they retire based on the amount of money contributed throughout their career and investment gains or losses.
The bill would use money from coal severance tax revenue and state treasury to settle the system’s shortfall.
The Democratic governor’s proposal, House Bill 454, would pay off liabilities in the Public Employee Retirement System with money from natural resource development while maintaining a defined benefit system. Employers and employees would both increase their contribution rates by 1 percent.
A second Democratic proposal, House Bill 377, focuses on the Teachers’ Retirement System. It would make up the deficit by increasing the employee contribution rate to existing defined benefit plans by 1 percent. It would also draw upon state land revenues and school district reserves.
Family planning funding
The battle over funding family planning services is heating up as the House Appropriations Committee approved a $9 billion, two-year state budget last week that cuts federal Title X money that went to community clinics.
Citing concerns over those funds going to clinics like Planned Parenthood that perform abortions, all but two Republicans voted against an amendment to restore that money. A subcommittee had previously cut the $4.6 million provision from House Bill 2.
“Many, many Montana taxpayers have a moral objection to abortion dollars that are spent by some providers that receive this funding,” said Rep. Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton. “Tax dollars belong to the people of Montana. We shouldn’t spend money on anything that they object to.”
Clinics use Title X money to offer contraceptives and cancer screenings to low-income Montanans. Under federal law, the money cannot be spent on abortions, although some Republicans have questioned whether health care providers follow that rule.
After the vote, Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, said Democrats will propose the amendment again when the budget comes to the House floor this week. She said clinics keep scrupulous records to show that the Title X money is not being used for abortions.
“Every single dollar is accounted for. There is no way this money could be misused,” she said. “Instead, (those who voted against the amendment) are going to put the welfare of Montana citizens in jeopardy because of their fear that has no basis in reality.”
Lawmakers are considering the Democratic governor’s bipartisan effort to combat so-called “dark money,” those anonymous campaign contributions often blamed for negative attack ads during the 2012 election.
Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican Sen. Jim Peterson of Buffalo have dubbed Senate Bill 375 the Transparency, Reporting and Accountability in Campaign and Elections (TRACE Act).
The proposal would require that political action committees and political party committees disclose all contributions. It would also raise current donation limits and prohibit contributions from corporations or unions.
“I think Montanans are tired of dirty politics, nasty mudslinging campaigns and personal attacks” said Peterson, the bill’s sponsor. “And I believe they are even more disgusted with the fact that many of these attacks are hidden inside dark money organizations that are unaccountable to the voting public.”
The measure has its critics. Officials from Common Cause Montana and last fall’s I-166 campaign to ban corporate campaign spending supported the bill’s aim to eliminate dark money groups, but they opposed increasing the amount individuals can give to candidates and the total candidates can accept from all PACs.
In addition to the state employee pay plan bill, Democrats tried unsuccessfully last week to revive – or “blast” out – three measures bottled up in GOP-controlled committees.
House Democrats attempted to blast out bills would direct money toward out-of-school food programs for children, combat cyber bullying and require that all boarding schools obtain state licenses.
The House Judiciary Committee’s decision to table the boarding school bill in February prompted a CNN crew to visit the Capitol to produce a story for Anderson Cooper 360. The controversy surrounding the bill stemmed largely from allegations of violence against students at an unlicensed religious boarding school in St. Ignatius.
Democrats argued that a 2007 law created a loophole allowing religious boarding schools to operate without any government oversight. That opened the door for abuse, they said.
Republicans who spoke against the effort to revive the bill said there are numerous success stories from those institutions. They also questioned whether more government regulation would improve the schools.
Montana has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, and a legislator from Conrad wants to explore ways to prevent those tragedies.
The House approved Republican Rep. Rob Cook’s measure last week to establish a five-person team to review the causes of suicide and make recommendations on ways to prevent future deaths. House Bill 583includes a one-time $97,000 appropriation from the state treasury to fund the review team’s activities.
The bill now goes to the Senate and must receive the governor’s signature before the review team can start work.