By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA – Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill thinks Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer acted in bad faith when he negotiated massive raises for state workers earlier this year without consulting lawmakers.
Hill, debating Democratic candidate for governor Steve Bullock on the University of Montana campus in Missoula, promised Schweitzer’s plan wouldn’t see the light of day.
“As I’ve traveled around Montana, I’ve yet to find a single legislator who’s embraced a 10 percent pay raise for state employees,” Hill said during Wednesday night’s debate.
“I think the governor did not bargain in good faith by not including the legislative leadership in consultation on that decision.”
In mid-June, Schweitzer, leaving office after eight years due to term limits, announced a 10 percent pay hike for the more than 15,000 state workers spread over two years. The deal, negotiated solely with state labor unions, would cost more than $138 million, with $71 million coming from the general fund.
The state hasn’t handed out broad raises since 2009, though some public employees saw longevity-based pay hikes since that time.
Bullock endorsed Schweitzer’s plan, explaining the state should catch cost-of-living increases.The prices of items, such as gas, for example, aren’t stagnant.
Bullock said he’s willing to accommodate state worker needs, but “that doesn’t mean you get whatever you want.”
Hill remains open to raising pay for state workers, but he promised a course of action Schweitzer wouldn’t take: Collaboration alongside legislative leaders to craft an appropriate and legislatively palatable proposal.
“One of our problems in Montana is the breakdown between the legislative branch and the executive branch, and this has only compounded that,” Hill alleged.
Schweitzer wears as a badge of political honor his unwillingness to work with Republicans on the pay issue.
In 2011, Republicans blocked a Schweitzer-backed plan that would have boosted state worker pay 4 percent through two years. Legislative GOP members argued the state didn’t have adequate resources to cover the cost, fully rejected the plan and gave workers nothing.
The unions, which negotiated the deal in closed-door meetings with Schweitzer, objected and appealed, but their challenge failed.
Schweitzer, on the other hand, took an alternative course, invoking special privileges as the state’s top executive to tweak and ultimately lower employee health insurance costs.
The gregarious governor smugly bragged about the trick at an Ohio Democratic Party dinner earlier this year.
Some debates followers mused on Twitter about the pay issue.
@Jhwygirl gleefully mocked Schweitzer for thinking a 10 percent pay raise lived within the realm of possibility. “Governor was whack with a 10% raise for state employees,” she tweeted. “They’d (state workers) be lucky to get 5. Gov must have been smoking sweetgrass or something.
State Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, took a more serious tone to communicate essentially the same message.
“10 percent across-the-board pay raise will not happen,” he said flatly on Twitter.
Hill also mentioned he would support some variation of merit pay for state workers to increase overall productivity and efficiency.
Bullock fired back, arguing that Hill’s remarks reflected a candidate who believes state workers aren’t adequately productive. He said he would ask much of state workers, but he wouldn’t “demonize public workers in the process.”
Contact: Dustin@Watchdog.org, @DustinHurst via Twitter.