By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA — After repeatedly blaming Montana’s looming pension problems on Republicans, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer reversed course Tuesday and pointed the finger at the real culprits — everyone.
At an early April news conference, Schweitzer pitched his solution to fill Montana’s $3.9 billion pension deficit, but he couldn’t resist taking multiple swipes at Republicans. He claimed their mismanagement led the Treasure State into the pension crisis and that only he, a Democrat, could lead Montanans to fiscal safety.
On Tuesday, he recognized that the entire Montana Legislature — Republicans and Democrats — caused the state’s retirement woes. He was speaking on the Voices of Montana radio program.
“In 2001, after 10 years of good stock market returns, the Legislature decided we’re going to change our pension system,” the governor told radio host Aaron Flint. “On the day our Legislature passed that and (Gov.) Judy Martz signed that, our pension system went upside down.”
Schweitzer’s words reveal a sharp pivot in his finger-pointing.
At the April news conference, he heaped responsibility on Republicans multiple times for the fiasco. His evidence? Republicans held the State House, Senate and the governor’s mansion and a GOP senator ran the measure that created the mess, officially 2001’s House Bill 294.
The bill, sponsored by then-Rep. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, effectively doubled the yearly cost-of-living increase handed out to state pension beneficiaries.
Unfortunately for Schweitzer, a closer look revealed Democrats and Republicans voted 50-0 to pass the law in the state Senate and 97-3 in the Montana House. The three legislators opposing the bill were Republicans.
Yet, Schweitzer continues to stop short in his blame game.
While Republicans and Democrats supported the measure and the Republican governor signed it, the MEA-MFT, the 18,000 member teachers union, crafted the bill and pushed it through the Capitol halls. MEA-MFT is an organization formed after the 2000 merger of the Montana Education Association and the Montana Federation of Teachers.
In a 2001 newsletter, MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver claimed House Bill 294 as “our bill” and rallied members around its passage.
“We are confident, despite some capitol hallway grumbling, that the Legislature will authorize the governing boards of the various public employees retirement systems to provide a 3 percent annual increase in retirement benefits to serve as a hedge against inflation,” Feaver wrote.
In the Watchdog.org interview just days after Schweitzer’s April news conference, the governor refused to blame the union. He shielded the group from criticism — or factual reality — several times, claiming ignorance because he wasn’t in government in 2001.
For his part, Lewis, now a state senator, dubbed House Bill 294 the “biggest mistake” of his legislative career.