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Lawmaker challenges governor to public access on staff salaries

By   /   May 16, 2011  /   No Comments

By PHIL DRAKE

HELENA – Angered by the governor’s veto of a bill that would set up a state transparency website, a lawmaker said he has mailed a letter to Gov. Brian Schweitzer asking him to provide information on the salaries of 60 staff members.

Rep. Tom Burnett, R-Bozeman, who sponsored House Bill 444, said despite the governor’s claims that citizens have “ample access” to state budget information, that figures on actual state employee pay and benefits is “remarkably hard to obtain.”

Burnett, who complained about the governor’s veto Thursday on the “Voices of Montana” radio program, then requests “a table of the actual pay of each of the 60.07 full time equivalent employees” in the governor’s office, saying that “actual pay is base pay, longevity pay, bonuses and overtime earned during the year.”

He said he was hopeful he would get the information requested and was taking the governor “at his word” that the information was easily available to the public.

The governor’s office had not received Burnett’s letter, which was mailed Thursday, and did not offer any comment.

The Montana Policy Institute, which publishes Montana Watchdog, has tried for more than a year to get actual state employee compensation data. To see the data MPI has compiled, go to: http://www.opengovmt.org/.

On May 10, Schweitzer vetoed HB 444, which would have set up a public website with information about state finances, including budgets and spending information.

The Democratic governor said the cost would have been almost $400,000 but would “provide no return on taxpayer investment.” His letter pointed to the amount of information on state finances made public through the Legislative Fiscal Division.

Burnett said he believes the actual cost of the website would have been much less, closer to $50,000 or $100,000. Burnett said the bill passed with bipartisan support and that more than 20 states now have similar websites to the one he proposed and that Oregon produced theirs with “existing resources.”

“It’s not the money, I do not believe,” Burnett told Montana Watchdog. “I think it’s just a resistance to transparency.”

In his letter to the governor, Burnett requested to know if the employee was male or female. He told Montana Watchdog he did that to alleviate any “glass ceiling” concerns in which female employees were paid less than their male counterparts for the same job. He said he also asked if the employee were a union member in order to determine if the salary was pre-set.

According to the fiscal note that accompanied the bill, HB 444 would cost $288,838 in fiscal year 2012 and $106,659 in fiscal year 2013. By adding in a 2 percent inflation factor, the note states it would then go to $108,700 in fiscal year 2014 and $110,874 in FY 2015.

The estimate includes costs for a full-time employee of $83,910 and $3,100 for new employee packages. There is a one-time development charge in FY 2012 of $178,200 for web portal design, development and management resources.

The fiscal note states HB 444 would have to be included in HB 2, the general appropriations act.

HB 444 passed a third reading in the House by 75-21 in March and by the Senate in April by 30-20.

Schweitzer’s letter said much of the information is already online as the Legislative Fiscal Division publishes reports about the budget and other fiscal matters.

“If legislators desired to publish more information about Montana’s fiscal affairs, they already have that authority to upload that information on their own website,” he wrote.

A state transparency website scorecard on the website of the U. S. Public Interest Research Groups, a network of researchers, students, organizers, and advocates across the country, gives Montana a grade of “F.”

Sunshine Review, a website devoted to “bringing state and local government to light,” gives Montana a “B” on their transparency report card, while counties in the state receive a “D.”

In announcing his veto, the governor said there was also a “more practical obstacle.”

“As part of our overall budget settlement, my office reached an agreement with the Speaker of the House (Mike Milburn, R-Cascade) and the President of the Senate (Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo) that this bill would not receive funding.”

Reporter Michael Noyes contributed to this story.

Below is the full text of Burnett’s letter to the governor:

Dear Governor Schweitzer:

In vetoing House Bill 444, the transparency bill, or checkbook online bill, your letter said citizens have “ample access to information about the state budget.” Information on actual state employee pay and benefits is remarkably hard to obtain. The Montana Attorney General’s opinion on making public state employee pay stated, “the general rule must be that government records are open to the public.” And, “Inasmuch as the very existence of public institutions depends upon finances provided by the public, it does not strike us as being discordant to reason that the public would want to know, and ought to know, how their money is spent,” (Citing Penokie v. Michigan Technological University).

Would you please send me a table of the actual pay of each of the 60.07 full time equivalent employees in the Governor’s Office? Actual pay is base pay, longevity pay, bonuses and overtime earned during the year. It should coincide with the first box on a state tax reporting form labeled “total compensation”. Hypothetical pay is base rate times 2,080 hours plus longevity pay. I desire actual pay, not hypothetical pay. Please provide:

First name

Last name

Department

Job description or title

Sex

Union status

Date of hire

Total, actual pay for the most current fiscal year

Total value of benefits package

I would like the table in Excel format, delivered to my email address.

Sincerely,

Rep. Tom Burnett

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