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Employees of the state of Montana and its university system stand just a signature away from hourly wage increases in each of the next two years.

House Bill 175 carried by Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena, passed the Montana House of Representatives for the second time Thursday in a 68-31 vote. With approval from Gov. Steve Bullock, 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.

The bill also provides benefit increases for public employees, such as higher meal allowances for traveling employees, at an annual cost of just over $700,000.

Allowances are currently $5 for breakfast, $6 for lunch and $12 for dinner. HB 175 would increase each by $2.50, the first increase since 1993, Dooling told the House Appropriations Committee Jan. 22.

HB 175 first passed the House 91-7 on Jan. 28. The bill then cleared the Senate 47-0 on Saturday after a slight amendment from Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork.

In its first House vote, a section of HB 175 outlined $3 million from various sources to the Office of Budget and Program Planning to allocate to agencies with retirement cost overruns, a lack of staff vacancies or "other contingencies."

Keenan’s amendment, with which the House concurred Wednesday, eliminated  "other contingencies" from this provision.

The raises for state and university employees would cost $8.8 million in fiscal 2020 and another $26.5 million in fiscal 2021.

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The overall cost of the bill would amount to $36 million annually beginning in fiscal 2022.

The legislation was supported by the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the Montana AFL-CIO and Democratic and GOP House and Senate leadership.

Dooling said the Legislature asked for a flat-dollar increase, which helps “middle- and lower-wage earners,” rather than a percentage increase.

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