A bill to open up information about legal settlements made by the state of Montana passed its final reading in the state Senate Tuesday.
House Bill 532 carried by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, would require the state Department of Administration to disclose on a website information about monetary settlements made against the state. The bill would also forbid nondisclosure agreements for state settlements — though claims involving minors are exempt — and require records related to state settlements be retained for 20 years instead of five.
“I think it’s time that we have transparency on this issue,” said Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, who carried the bill for Mercer in the Senate. “I think it’s important that, like other areas of state government, we’re transparent in this area.”
The Associated Press reported in February that employees of Montana's executive branch agencies took in an average of about $650,000 in settlements each year between 2013 and 2017. That figure fell under $200,000 in 2018.
Mercer’s bill passed the House in a largely party-line 59-40 vote two weeks ago and met a similarly polarized reception in the Senate, where it passed its third reading vote 29-21 on Tuesday. The House must concur with Senate amendments for the bill to reach Gov. Steve Bullock, though the bill's unpopularity with Democrats suggests a veto would be likely.
Sen. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, said Monday that the public scrutiny the bill calls for would make it even harder for anyone to come forward and make a claim against the state.
“Anybody can go back and look and see, ‘Hey, you know what, so-and-so filed a claim for sexual harassment,’ let’s say. ‘She’s a bad person, you don’t want to hire her,’ because now it’s out in the public eye,” McConnell said. He added that knowing the state entity that employed a claimant might make it possible to identify the person.
The portion of the bill mandating a website requires the date and amount of a settlement be made public, along with the state entity where the claim was first made.