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Committee tables state workers' pay raises
[March 25, 2011]

Committee tables state workers' pay raises

Mar 23, 2011 (Independent Record - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday rejected and then tabled the bill containing proposed pay raises for 11,600 state employees, on a mostly party-line vote with Republicans against the bill.

House Bill 13, sponsored by Rep. Cynthia Hiner, D-Deer Lodge, provided a 1 percent pay increase for state workers in January 2012 and a 3 percent raise in January 2013, costing the state $21 million over the next two years. Employees would get no increases for their share of health insurance premiums.

The Schweitzer administration and leaders of the three major public employee unions, MEA-MFT, Montana Public Employees Association and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, had negotiated the pay package and union members ratified the agreement.

But a majority of Republicans on the committee refused to adopt the bill, as the panel voted 12-9 against its passage and then tabled it. Two Republicans, Reps. Duane Ankney of Colstrip and Steve Gibson of East Helena, joined the Democrats in voting for HB13 and opposing the motion to table.

Many state employees' pay has been frozen for the past two years under an agreement the unions made with the Schweitzer administration before the 2009 Legislature. Those making more than $45,000 saw their pay frozen for two years, while those with salaries below that amount received a one-time $450 payment.

Schweitzer, in an interview after the vote, said it's the first time in recent history that a negotiated pay plan has been voted down, and that it was a very modest proposal.

"These are the people who do the work that matters in Montana," the governor said. "They take care of the elderly, the kids, the disabled; they keep bad guys locked up; they maintain our roads; they keep our communities safe." He said Montana has a "dedicated and well-trained workforce" with modest compensation, and that some state workers take second jobs to make ends meet.

Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT union, told reporters after the vote that he's disappointed, but "not necessarily surprised." He called the move to table the pay-raise bill "a slap upside the face." Still, Feaver said he's confident the pay-plan bill will resurface later this session or in a possible special session.

Asked if state employees are considering calling a strike, Feaver said, "We're not talking strike. I certainly hope that is not the outcome." During the committee meeting, Hiner said the Appropriations Committee had approved a number of miscellaneous spending bills in recent days.

"It's time now that we support our state employees across Montana," she said.

She called the pay raises "very modest." Rep. Bob Mehlhoff, D-Great Falls, said some people thought that state employees would seek a pay raise in 2009 after federal stimulus money became available, but one union leader said that wouldn't be the case because a deal was a deal.

Now the state should honor the pay deal made with workers prior to the 2011 session, he said.

Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, said legislators through the proposed budget are asking state employees to do more with less.

"We have done nothing but add work to their plate," he said.

Republicans, however, said they couldn't justify raising state employees' pay when their constituents back home weren't seeing pay raises.

"Where I live in the Flathead, private individuals are doing more and more with less and less," Randy Brodehl, R-Kalispell.

Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, said when he looks at the financial status of privately employed Montanans, he can't vote for a pay raise for state workers.

To see more of the Independent Record, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2011, Independent Record, Helena, Mont.

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