Montana House Beats Back Employee Pay Increase Deal

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – House Republicans again on Wednesday blocked a proposed pay increase for state employees, even though supporters pointed to a decision earlier in the day that freed up enough money in the budget to pay for the negotiated increase.

Democrats brought the pay issue straight to the House floor Wednesday night. A day earlier, a Republican-led committee rejected the pay raise of 1 percent next year and 3 percent in 2013 that had been negotiated by Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s administration and employee labor unions.

The raises would cost the state about $20 million over the next two years. Republicans controlling the House turned back the deal in a 54-39 floor vote.

Democrats pointed out that earlier on Wednesday, a House committee charged with estimating state tax revenue agreed the state would have about $40 million more available than lawmakers originally believed over the next two-year budget period. That money could be used to fund the pay deal that has already been brokered as part of contract negotiations.

“It is our turn to stick by the deal,” said Cynthia Hiner, D-Deer Lodge.

Republicans said the economy remains too shaky to offer a pay increase. They argued many Montanans have lost jobs, and they don’t want to see state workers get a pay increase.

“It is not a rosy picture around this state. In good conscience we didn’t feel their tax dollars should go into a pay raise at this time,” said Walt McNutt, R-Sydney. “I hope you understand it was not an easy decision to make.”

Earlier in the day, the House Taxation Committee agreed in a bipartisan vote Wednesday to increase the revenue estimate a bit, while still keeping it about $100 million less than the governor’s. The move came after Democrats unsuccessfully tried to convince Republicans to go with the higher figure.

The revenue estimate aims to guess how much money the state will receive in tax money over the next two years. It is used to establish how much can be spent while still meeting the constitutional obligation of a balanced budget.

Republicans are eying a budget that spends about $3.6 billion in state money.

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