Governor Nixes Pay Bump for Montana Legislators 

Supporters had argued increasing lawmaker pay from $16 to $24 an hour would make it easier for Montanans who aren’t retired or independently wealthy to serve

By ERIC DIETRICH, Montana Free Press
Gov. Greg Gianforte attends a law enforcement roundtable in Kalispell on Sept. 15, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Gov. Greg Gianforte has vetoed a bill raising the wages paid Montana legislators, arguing the proposed increase — from about $16 to $24 an hour starting in 2025 on top of already-approved per-diem increases — was disproportionate to increases the Legislature had authorized for state employees.

“As has been the case since before our nation’s founding, public service comes with personal sacrifice — long hours away from home, less time with family, and appropriately limited compensation,” Gianforte wrote in a memo explaining his veto. “Those who enter public service, by design, are often motivated by a cause greater than themselves.”

Supporters of raising lawmaker pay had argued the increase was necessary to ensure Montanans who aren’t retired or independently wealthy can afford to serve in the Legislature.

“The reality is we’re making decisions on who can serve,” House Appropriations Chair Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said during floor debate on the bill April 13.

“I certainly can live without this,” said Jones, “but I’ve watched the people who can’t and I’ve watched them for years.”

Lawmakers are currently paid $104.86 a day, or about $13 an hour, when the Legislature is in session or when they’re conducting other legislative business, such as attending interim meetings. Existing law would raise legislator compensation to about $16 an hour for the 2025 session, according to an analysis produced by the governor’s budget office. The proposed increase would have brought legislators’ pay to about $24 an hour, or $192 a day.

In comparison, Helena’s Panda Express restaurant Friday was advertising “Service & Kitchen Team” openings at wages of $19 to $23 an hour.

The legislator pay increase measure, Senate Bill 485, would have raised the daily salary paid to legislators by fixing lawmakers’ wages to 40% of the governor’s compensation on an hourly basis. The budget office estimates it would have cost the state about $1 million a year in years when the Legislature is in session and about $350,000 a year in out-of-session years when only interim committees are meeting.

During the 90-business day sessions, lawmakers also receive a per diem allowance intended to cover the cost of their lodging, meals and travel. House Bill 28, which passed the Legislature in February and became law without the governor’s signature in March, raised the per diem rates to match rates paid to traveling federal employees starting with this year’s session. Lawmakers had previously received about $132 a day in per diem, an amount now increased to $171 a day.

Supporters of HB 28, sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Knudesn, R-Culbertson, argued that the per diem increase was necessary to help lawmakers cover the costs of expenses like paying for session housing in Helena while maintaining existing residences in their home districts.

While debating the broader pay increase, supporters and opponents alike acknowledged it was politically challenging for the Legislature to vote to increase its own pay, particularly after increasing the per diem rates. However, supporters argued that failing to provide lawmakers a living wage hurts the Legislature’s ability to effectively serve the state.

“What it’s doing is it’s creating a situation where only the wealthy or only the retired can come and serve — that people that should be here, good bright young minds, are not able to come,” Rep. Garry Parry, R-Colstrip, argued during the April 13 debate.

The governor, who earns $118,000 a year but donates his salary to charity, found lawmakers’ arguments unpersuasive.

“Our part-time citizen legislature stands in contrast to those in other states like California where professional politicians are full-time legislators, at great cost to taxpayers,” Gianforte wrote in his veto memo. “Our system keeps government close to the people, and it’s part of what makes Montana special.”

Gianforte argued the pay bump would have increased lawmaker pay by 74%, out of line with 16% increases seen in the private sector on average over the past two years.

He also noted that the state employee pay plan, implemented by House Bill 13, applies to all state employees including lawmakers. That increase will provide legislators with the extra $3 an hour.

“If legislators’ pay is to be adjusted,” Gianforte wrote, “it should be done prudently and in line with what Montanans, including our state employees, see with their paychecks.”

The pay increase bill, sponsored by Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, passed the Senate, 33-17, and the House, 56-43. Those margins are narrow enough the bill is unlikely to have the support necessary to override Gianforte’s veto.

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.