Mont. reaches deal on pay increases for employees

Matt Gouras, Associated Press
Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and state employee unions announced a deal Wednesday for across-the-board pay increases starting next month.

The Montana Public Employees Association said that upon ratification, employees will get a 3 percent raise starting in July and another 5 percent raise in November 2014. The governor's office said that most employees have not had a pay raise since 2008.

Union executive director Quinton Nyman said bargainers tried to get the largest raises possible as soon as they could with the money allotted by the Legislature.

"I think this affects members positively. The bargaining team was unanimous in their acceptance of this," Nyman said. "Folks need a raise now."

Lawmakers rejected an original deal bargained last year, which called for pay raises of 5 percent each of the next two years. The Republican-led Legislature cut the overall price tag by about 25 percent, to about $113 million for all areas of government, and told Gov. Steve Bullock to divvy up the smaller amount of money.

Republican legislative leaders said they were unhappy with the way former Gov. Brian Schweitzer's administration engineered raises for some employees under the pay freeze and asked Bullock to consider focusing the pay raises on lower-paid employees.

But Bullock was not bound by the request, and unions sought a deal as close as possible to the original pay raises of 5 percent each year.

"In national study after national study, Montana continually ranks as one of the best places to start a business or start a family. It's our dedicated, talented and hardworking public servants who help make that a reality," Bullock said in a statement. "This pay plan represents a fair pay increase for the snowplow drivers, nurses, biologists, firefighters and other state employees who go to work every day for all of us."

Unions, who saw the Legislature ignore their bargained pay plans in 2011 and 2013, said the system is broken and needs attention. An interim committee of lawmakers could study the issue.

"It is a pretty convoluted process to bargain one thing with the governor, and then have the Legislature try to figure out something else, and just kick the ball down the road to us to do something else altogether," said Eric Feaver, who runs the MEA-MEFT union. "I think that the unions, the administration and the Legislature, all three parties, need to fashion a better way of doing business."