House passes budget, shifts its focus to raises, pensions for state workers
By Amy R. Sisk University of Montana Community News Service
HELENA – Thanks to a last-minute agreement, Republicans and Democrats have unanimously passed a two-year, $9 billion state budget out of the House.
“This is my fourth term – I’m done,” said Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, in his closing remarks last week on House Bill 2. “What an honor to chair this appropriations committee that has done something for the state of Montana that is historic.”
House leadership had scheduled two full days for debate over HB 2. Lawmakers last week passed the budget out of the House, unamended, in less than an hour and a half.
“Even though I was in the minority, I felt I had a platform,” said Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Butte, who served on the subcommittee that reviewed health and human services spending.
He said both sides made compromises and applauded his colleagues’ efforts to fund early childhood education, services for people with disabilities, meal preparation for seniors and the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
Although the members of the House demonstrated their ability to reach across the aisle last week, HB 2 still faces a long path to the governor’s desk. It next goes to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, where legislators are expected to renew debate over funding. Democrats want further support for public schools and to restore federal family planning money to the budget.
“We have some priorities that our constituents sent us here to support,” said Rep Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena. “We will be carrying those concerns to our colleagues in the Senate.”
Here’s a look back at other highlights from week 11 at the Legislature:
State employee pay
A modified state employee pay plan is moving to the House floor.
The version of House Bill 13 that passed the Appropriations Committee last week charges the executive branch with determining how much to increase its employees’ salaries. The amended bill urges officials to pay “particular attention” to executive branch workers with low salaries and employees who have not received a raise over the past two years.
Republicans on the committee voted for the change to HB 13. The original Democratic proposal – the product of negotiations between unions and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer – would have established an across-the-board 5 percent pay increase over each of the next two years.
The eight Democrats on the committee opposed the amendment and voted against the bill, which passed on party lines.
The updated plan calls for $38 million less than the $152 million Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock proposed to cover the pay increases.
The amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena, said the bill’s price tag is not far below where the governor’s office is willing to negotiate. He added that the numbers are likely to change as lawmakers vote on other measures such as the bonding bill and tax relief.
State employees have not seen an across-the-board pay increase in four years, although certain individuals have received raises. Republicans argued that people who have received additional pay should not necessarily receive the same percentage increase as those whose salaries have remained flat.
Board of Regents
Board of Regents appointee Pat Williams addressed a state Senate panel last week, defending his comment to a New York Times reporter where he referred to University of Montana football players as “thugs.”
“Some people took that and thought I was talking about the whole team,” he told senators on the Education and Cultural Resources Committee. “But logically, folks, who would say that about a whole team?”
Williams discussed the remarks during a Senate hearing on his confirmation to the Montana Board of Regents, the seven-member panel that governs all of the state’s university system. More than a dozen people spoke in support of his appointment, but the hearing also drew a handful of opponents.
Former UM Vice President Jim Foley testified against Williams. He previously worked as a top congressional staffer for the appointee, who served as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Enough is enough with this name-calling of young men who, in most cases, can’t defend themselves against those words,” Foley said. “Words matter, and I just don’t take those words lightly.”
Committee chairman Jim Peterson, a Republican senator from Buffalo, said the committee will probably vote this week on regents’ confirmations.
The governor’s two bills to fix the $4 billion deficit in the state’s pension system are moving forward after the House Appropriations Committee voted down a third Republican-sponsored measure last week.
The committee tabled House Bill 338, which would have implemented a defined contribution system similar to a 401(k). Instead, the full House will now consider House Bills 377 and 454, which maintain the current system.
The existing defined benefit system pays retired state employees monthly pensions based on a formula that takes into account their salary and years of work.
The two bills ask employers and employees to increase contributions. House Bill 337 addresses liabilities in the Teachers’ Retirement System and draws upon state land revenues and school district reserves. House Bill 454 focuses on the Public Employee Retirement System while calling for funds from natural resource development.
Montanans could decide to change state legislators’ term limits when they cast their ballots in 2014.
The Senate passed House Bill 277 last week, which would ask voters to amend the Montana Constitution to allow lawmakers to serve in either the state House or Senate for 16 years, at which point they could no longer run for the Legislature. Currently, lawmakers can serve eight years in a particular chamber within a 16-year period.
The bill’s supporters argued that the term limits established by voters in 1992 have led to a lack of institutional knowledge among lawmakers due to their high turnover rate. They said HB 277 would allow legislators more time to understand complex issues and give them greater ability to develop seniority in a particular chamber.
Opponents expressed concern over the provision that bars people from running for office when they have served 16 years.
The bill now goes back to the House, and lawmakers must decide whether to accept the Senate’s changes. The bill that passed through the House would allow legislators to run for office again after serving 16 years, provided they take an eight-year break from the Legislature.
A bill to allow people to eat road kill is headed to Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk.
House Bill 247, which passed the Senate last week, would allow law-enforcement officers to issue permits to people who want to salvage the carcasses of antelope, deer, elk and moose killed by vehicles.
If the governor signs the bill, Montana will become one of a handful of states to allow people to consume road kill.
Reporter Amy Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @amyrsisk on Twitter for the latest from the Capitol.