Several hundred public employees and college students rallied on the steps of the state Capitol Monday, decrying proposed budget cuts to education and state services as harmful and unnecessary.
The workers, who lined the Capitol’s snowy front steps in temperatures in the 20s, also called out their support for public workers in Wisconsin, which has gained national attention as Republicans there try to strip public-sector unions of their collective bargaining rights.
“It’s not about the budget,” Billings firefighter Joe Sands said of the standoff in Wisconsin. “It’s about (the Wisconsin governor’s) power to strip us of our rights. It’s about crushing the groups that stand up for the middle class: Unions.”
“To the middle class in Montana and Wisconsin … we will not be broken, we will not give up, we will fight back and we will prevail.”
Sands and other speakers got a raucous reception at the rally, which occurred while legislators met inside the Capitol at floor sessions in the House and Senate.
Next week, after the 2011 Legislature’s midway break, the House Appropriations Committee will start voting on the proposed state budget for the next two years.
So far, the budget subcommittees have recommended millions of dollars in cuts from Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposed budget, in funding for public schools, the state university system and human services.
Rep. Walt McNutt, R-Sidney, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, emphasized Monday that the subcommittee actions are only recommendations and that the final budget may look much different.
However, McNutt also said Republicans believe there’s not enough on-going revenue to fund the governor’s budget, so some reductions must be made.
“We’re working with recommendations on how we can craft a budget that has less money than the (current) biennium’s budget,” he said. “There’s going to be less money. .. We’re trying not to be punitive for any one class or group (of programs and people).”
Speakers at the rally disputed the GOP view that a shortfall in tax revenue exists, saying the money is there to avoid budget reductions.
At the rally, John Fleming, a teacher and former state representative from St. Ignatius, criticized a vote last week to cut funding for and privatize the state veterans’ nursing home at Columbia Falls.
Fleming said his father-in-law, a World War II veteran of the Marines, is a resident of the home and gets excellent care from a dedicated staff.
“Now the Legislature is considering dismantling a facility that has served our country’s veterans since 1897,” he said. “I call that plain wrong – and I hope you do, too.”
Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the state’s largest public-sector union, said Montana is not Wisconsin, noting that Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, told national news outlets last week that he believes in bargaining with public employee unions and respects their bargaining rights.
“I don’t know if that’s what Fox News wanted to hear, but that’s what they got,” Feaver said.
Schweitzer, who wasn’t at the rally but spoke later with the Lee Newspapers State Bureau, said he told Fox and CNN last week that a governor is like a CEO of a large company and should treat its employees with respect.
“We met with our unions (two years ago) and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to need your help here,’” the governor said, referring to a two-year pay freeze negotiated in 2008. “Imagine if a new CEO just a week before he takes over announces that all of the people who work for him are slow, lazy, overpaid or have too many benefits. What would that do to morale?”
This year, the Schweitzer administration negotiated a 1 percent pay raise for state workers starting next January and a 3 percent raise the following year. The Legislature has yet to act on the funding for the deal.
Senate Republican leadership at the Legislature released a statement in response to the rally, saying that workers “took their paid day off to protest fiscally responsible policies at the Montana Legislature.”
Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said state workers have pay and benefits higher than the average Montanan.
“Montana Republicans want to be fair with state employees, but they need to recognize that they need to be fair with state taxpayers,” he said.
Sands, who was flanked at the rally by a half-dozen uniformed firefighters from Butte, said Republicans are trying to “scapegoat public employees,” shifting the blame for the country’s economic meltdown and problems “from where it belongs, from Wall Street, to us, public employees.”