By Dustin Hurst ǀ Watchdog.org
HELENA —Using Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s argument as to who’s responsible for the state’s multi-billion dollar pension deficit, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, also a Democrat, bears some of the blame.
In a news conference earlier this year, Schweitzer offered reforms to the state retirement system to make up the funding gap estimated to be at least $3.9 billion, but he also lambasted Republicans who, he said, created the problem. He blamed GOP lawmakers for passing 2001’s House Bill 294, a measure that gave state pension beneficiaries a 3 percent annual cost-of-living raise.
That bill, Schweitzer roared, was solely responsible for Montana’s pension pit. Republicans were a large part of the problem. But so was Tester, who served as a state senator from 1998 until 2005, when he left to run for his U.S. Senate seat.
Former GOP state Rep. Dave Lewis of Helena, now a senator, ran the bill, which passed both Republican-controlled legislative chambers and was signed by a Republican governor, Judy Martz.
Schweitzer, in his anti-GOP pension tirade, failed to mention that the bill passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate. In fact, the only three lawmakers to vote against the measure — Rep. Dave Kasten of Brockway, Rep. Donald Steinbeissser of Sidney and Rep. Robert Story of Park City — were Republicans.
The Republican-controlled House passed the measure to the Senate on a 97-3 vote. The Senate took it up, sending it through committee, where is gained unanimous approval and onto the floor. Senators, including Tester, passed it 50- 0.
On a telephone call shortly after the news conference, Schweitzer denied that anyone but Republicans were involved, despite having vote counts showing the contrary. The Democratic governor also wouldn’t mention the involvement of the MEA-MFT, Montana’s 17,000-member teachers union, which claimed House Bill 294 as “our bill.”
The bill might have just been a lack of foresight on legislators’ part. There was no fiscal note on the bill, as state analysts said the additional pension benefits would simply come from a surplus the retirement funds were enjoying at the time. No one saw the coming Great Recession and market crash, which blew holes in pension funds nationwide.
Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT, said as much.
“It looked like the markets would be robust and grow forever,” Feaver said during a phone interview.
Then-House Minority Whip George Golie, D-Great Falls, said the pension surplus was so large, he didn’t need any convincing to support House Bill 294.
“They didn’t have to lean on me,” Golie said, adding that he saw moving up cost-of-living adjustments to 3 percent as prudent.
Aaron Murphy, Tester’s campaign spokesman, did not reply to a request for comment on the issue, nor did Sarah Elliott, Schweitzer’s press director.