While we understand some of the concerns of the Democratic lawmakers appointed to investigate confidential settlements with terminated Montana workers, those refusing to participate aren’t solving anything.
House Speaker Austin Knudsen and Senate President Scott Sales, both Republicans, formed the Special Select Committee on State Settlement Accountability after the Legislative Audit Division found the state had paid nearly $3 million in employee settlements between 2013 and 2017, compared to only $1.2 million between 2003 and 2012. The new committee of six Republicans and four Democrats is charged with investigating how the settlements were made and whether they should be made public.
Though Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget director Dan Villa is blaming the increase on a new account created in 2013 to consolidate settlement payments that were previously made across various areas of state government, it would be irresponsible for state lawmakers to take his word for it without verifying that for themselves.
But three of the four Democrats appointed to the new committee are refusing to participate in the investigation. And their behavior is being encouraged by Democratic leadership, as Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso and House Minority Leader Jenny Eck recommended that Democrats not attend the initial meeting because the committee’s aim could be to make Bullock look bad.
In our view, whether or not this committee’s findings might make the governor or any other public servants look bad is completely irrelevant. If lawmakers discover that the governor has done something in his official capacity that makes him look bad, that’s certainly not the committee’s fault, and the people of Montana have a right to know about it.
Democratic leaders have also noted concerns that the new committee’s party representation is not evenly split, and that the Legislative Audit Division is already planning its own audit this year of employee termination settlement agreements. We believe these are both valid concerns that could have been properly addressed at the group’s first meeting if the concerned parties would have bothered to show up.
Whether they like it or not, Democratic Sen. Mary Caferro of Helena, Sen. Nate McConnell of Missoula and Rep. Kim Dudik of Missoula were all appointed to an official legislative committee. By refusing to participate, they are shirking their duties as legislators and sending a troubling message that they aren’t even willing to engage with the opposing party.
Refusing to attend the meeting didn’t make it go away. It just made the meeting less productive. If all of our elected leaders ignored assignments they didn’t like, our state government would come to a standstill.
Regardless of who is governor or which political party is in power, Montanans deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent. And every taxpayer should be concerned that state leaders are refusing to release details about the millions they are spending on these and other state settlements.
Whether these settlement agreements were justified or not, they are public information that is being withheld from the public. And someone needs to be investigating them and releasing them to the Montanans who are footing the bill.
If the new Special Select Committee on State Settlement Accountability decides that the Legislative Audit Division can quickly and effectively complete this important work on its own, so be it. We see no need to duplicate the work if both committees are indeed working toward the same goals.
But the new committee needs to at least have that discussion as a group. And if the same issues are still plaguing our state a year from now, any legislators who were appointed to address this specific problem and chose to do nothing about it will have nobody to blame but themselves.
We are glad to see some legislators finally taking this issue seriously, and it's time to get to work and find a solution.
This is the opinion of the Independent Record editorial board.