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The Montana State Capitol

Legislation to increase the hourly pay of state and Montana University System employees passed Tuesday out of the House Appropriations Committee.

House Bill 175, introduced by Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena, received vocal support from members of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, Montana AFL-CIO and Associated Students of Montana State University, among others, before passing in a 20-2 vote. In effect, the bill would raise the pay of state and university employees by 50 cents per hour on the first calendar days of 2020 and 2021.

Most of the bill’s financial impact stems from the proposed pay increase, with expenditures on state and university employee pay increases totaling $8.8 million in fiscal 2020 and $26.5 million in fiscal 2021 if passed. After the second increase, that figure would rise to $35.3 million in fiscal 2022.

Dooling noted that the pay increase was the product of negotiations between members of public employee unions and the office of Gov. Steve Bullock. The Legislature, she said, asked for a flat-dollar increase, which helps “middle- and lower-wage earners,” rather than a percentage increase.

Legislation passed on the final day of the 2017 session awarded state and university employees pay increases of 1 percent on Feb. 15, 2018. A second increase of 1 percent takes effect next month.

The bill received unanimous vocal praise in public testimony from state employees, including two lobbyists for Montana university students.

Ronda Wiggers of the Helena Chamber of Commerce reminded the committee of the economic role state employees play in Montana cities with large public workforces.

“We’ve heard from the people whose lives are directly impacted when you make your decisions about how we pay our state employees. I’m here to just remind you that there’s other people that are also affected and support our state employees,” Wiggers said. “The businesses in the towns that are majorly affected by state employees — Helena and the university cities — our economies also depend on these people making good wages and fair wages."

House Minority Leader Rep. Casey Schreiner, a Democrat from Great Falls, said House Democrats are “very happy” with the bipartisan effort behind the bill.

“Our caucus has carried a very similar bill session after session after session, and if it takes a member of the majority party to carry it for us to get across the finish line, we are actually applauding that effort,” Schreiner said.

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House Majority Leader Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, said in a press release Tuesday that the bill’s quick passage to the governor’s office is a priority for House Republicans.

"This negotiated bill is a reasonable increase, considering that it targets our hardworking mid-level employees who bring their expertise to the table and are often not compensated at market rates,” Tschida said.

The bill includes benefits for public employees beyond the pay increase, such as higher meal allowances for travelling employees at an annual cost of just over $700,000. Allowances are currently $5 for breakfast, $6 for lunch and $12 for dinner. Dooling’s bill would increase each by $2.50, the first increase since 1993, she said.

The bill would keep the employer’s share of health insurance at its current rate, according to Dooling.

The overall cost of the bill would amount to $36 million annually beginning in fiscal 2022, with annual general fund expenditures of $19.4 million.

Dooling’s bill appears identically as part of the Executive Budget as House Bill 13, carried by Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena.

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