On a party-line vote Friday, the Legislative Council rejected an attempt to subpoena emails, text messages and other correspondence to and from a state retirement board during its meeting last month.
At a special meeting, the council voted 6-5 against issuing the subpoena for this correspondence and those of board staff and Department of Administration staff during the meeting of the Montana Public Employee Retirement Board.
All six Democratic on the council voted against the subpoena requested by Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings. All five Republicans participating in the conference call supported the motion. One other Republican missed the meeting, but his vote would not have mattered because approving the motion for the subpoena request would have taken seven votes.
However, Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, said later Friday she has made an individual request for the same records. She chairs the Legislature’s interim State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Committee, where the issue about the Sept. 12 MPERB meeting surfaced earlier this week.
At the Sept. 13 meeting, the Montana Public Employees’ Retirement Board debated whether to change the assumed rate of its pension investment returns. It is a key component when the actuary projects the future financial health of the pension fund.
The board’s actuary suggested lowering this rate to 7.50 percent, while state Budget Director Dan Villa advocated keeping it at the current 7.75 percent rates.
Several 4-3 votes were taken before one board member changed her mind and the board voted to keep the current rate at 7.75 percent.
After the Legislative Council vote Friday, Essmann said, “Something smells fishy.”
He argued for issuing the subpoena, saying the PERB is set up to be independent of the executive and legislative branch and has a fiduciary duty over the pension funds.
Essmann said the Legislature has put three cash infusions totaling $125 million into state pension funds since 2005.
“We need to look at the fundamental underpinnings of the right to participate,” he said. “Every member of the public should have the right to participate equally. Obviously, some have more rights than others due to technology.”
Opposing the motion was Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, who said, “I think this is an overreach and is not necessary.”
“The very issuance of a subpoena implies that we think something was done improperly,” Sesso said. “It’s not the role of the legislative body, or this council, to be enforcing this law. We have a reasonable expectation that it’s being complied with.”
House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said perhaps the Legislature needs to set policy and adopt rules to restrict electronic communications to lawmakers themselves and other elected officials during meetings. But he warned about limiting communications between citizens and their elected officials.
Essmann also raised questions about the board president putting Roxanne Minnehan, executive director of the Montana Public Employee Retirement Administration, on administrative leave this week. He questioned whether it was related to her comments that there had been some communications sent to the board members in September.