HELENA — Newly sworn-in Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration signaled Wednesday that the governor intends to support a compensation proposal before the Montana Legislature that would hold state workers’ wages flat over the coming year and then offer raises in the second half of calendar year 2022.

As introduced before the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday, the 2022-23 State Employee Pay Plan would keep base salary wages for most state employees stagnant through fiscal year 2022, which runs from July 2021 to June 2022, and then provide a 55-cent-per-hour raise in fiscal year 2023. It also calls for a 0.5% raise for employees with 25 years of uninterrupted service, adding to existing longevity bonuses for state workers who have passed the 10-, 15-, and 20-year thresholds.

“This increase is minimal, a ‘pittance,’ to quote a very conservative friend of mine,” said sponsor Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena. She added that many state employees have gone above and beyond to serve the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gianforte’s budget director, Kurt Alme, told the appropriations committee Wednesday that the governor supports the proposal, noting that it holds off on offering across-the-board raises until the second half of the two-year budget period, when the state economy will have had more time to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The governor and all of us in this administration look forward to working with our colleagues in state public service to do the business of the state and will continue to try to make our government always more efficient and more customer-service oriented for the taxpayers we serve,” Alme said.

The pay plan is based on negotiations between public employee unions and the administration of now-former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat. It applies to most state workers, including Montana State University System employees, though some groups of employees, like Montana Highway Patrol troopers and elected officials, have their salaries set through different systems.

In an interview Wednesday, Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis said the union offered to accept the 2021 pay freeze knowing the pandemic would likely weigh down the state’s budget going into this year’s legislative session. She also said that she believes Gianforte’s support for the Bullock-negotiated pay plan reflects an understanding that paying market wages is necessary for the state to attract and retain an effective workforce.

“I think he just gets it that this is a fair deal, and that the state does have an obligation to its employees,” Curtis said.

MFPE was highly critical of Gianforte before he won election as governor last year, with its board of directors voting to formally “condemn” his candidacy last spring and Curtis saying in a Democratic Party press release last fall that she thought the Republican “will eliminate this union and privatize Montana education as his first and second orders of business in the state legislature.”

However, she said Wednesday that she’s been able to talk with Gianforte since the election, and that the two leaders have had an in-person meeting.

“His office has been responsive,” she said.

The pay proposal, or House Bill 13, may be amended as it moves through the legislative process. As is the case with other bills, it needs to be passed by the Montana House and Senate before heading to Gianforte for his signature or veto.

Gianforte’s full budget proposal, a revised version of the state budget proposal Bullock presented in November, is expected to be released to the public Thursday.

A handful of university system representatives, public employees, and union representatives testified in favor of the pay proposal Wednesday. A few Helena-area business owners spoke against the proposal, saying their businesses have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that they don’t believe it’s fair for lawmakers to boost public sector wages while the private sector is suffering.

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This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.