The Montana Capitol building in Helena. Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

HELENA — A bill working its way through the Montana Legislature could result in hundreds of positions within state government being reclassified from career positions to political appointments, meaning staffers would likely turn over as administrations change.

The bill’s sponsor, House Speaker Pro Tempore Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, has argued that having more politically appointed staffers in the state workforce would make it easier for elected officials to shift the direction of state agencies by giving them and governor-appointed agency directors more opportunity to appoint like-minded aides.

“When a new administration is elected, it’s because the people expect some change. And when all you get is one appointed official to be able to do that, it’s very difficult,” Knudsen said at a Feb. 24 hearing.

Opponents, including labor groups and Democrats, have said the bill would politicize professional agencies and open high-level positions in state government to nepotism.

“Positions could be created for political cronies where the job consists of putting your feet up on the desk and collecting a paycheck that the average Montanan can only dream about,” Montana Federation of Public Employees representative Larry Nielsen said at a March 29 hearing. 

Under current law, the governor’s office and other agencies headed by elected officials — the Secretary of State’s Office, Department of Justice, Office of Public Instruction, State Auditor’s Office and Public Service Commission — are allowed as many as 15 appointed “personal staff” positions. Other state agencies, such as the Department of Transportation and Department of Public Health and Human Services, have directors appointed by the governor but don’t have personal staff positions.

Most of the state’s 12,000-employee workforce is subject to a highly regimented competitive hiring process intended to ensure that Montana workers have fair access to government jobs and that state agencies are staffed by qualified personnel. Elected officials, their personal staff, and specialized roles such as agency directors, university professors and judges are exempt from that process.

Since political appointees serve at the pleasure of their director, they typically leave their positions when elections bring a new administration to power. In contrast, permanent staff routinely stay on through transitions. Three months after Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte took office, for example, senior positions in the state health department and other agencies are still occupied by holdovers from the administration of former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat.

Knudsen’s bill, House Bill 588, would add personal staff positions to agencies with directors who are appointed by the governor, letting agencies with 100-plus employees switch as much as 10% of their workforce from competitively hired positions to political appointments.

The measure wouldn’t change the overall number of employees agencies are authorized to hire. Knudsen has said in bill hearings that he expects the change to be implemented gradually as existing agency staff leave their current jobs over time.

“This does not allow any firing or any removal of any current employees. This is only as these positions become open,” Knudsen said Feb. 24.

The bill is one of multiple Republican-led efforts this session that would make it easier for the governor and elected Republicans like the Attorney General to bring pressure to bear on state agency bureaucracies and the court system, which are seen by some conservatives as left-leaning.

Last month, for example, Gianforte signed a law that allows the governor to fill judicial vacancies directly instead of choosing from a pool of candidates suggested by the Judicial Nomination Commission. The commission was intended to insulate judicial selections from political pressures, but was criticized by the Gianforte administration as nonpartisan in name only.

An analysis by the Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning indicates HB 588 could shift 40 positions to political appointments in the Department of Environmental Quality, 65 in the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 210 in the Department of Transportation and 270 in the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The bill passed the House March 2, one of 28 bills debated on the House floor that day during the Legislature’s record-setting crunch in the runup to its transmittal deadline. It passed its final floor vote 58-41 with support from most Republicans and opposition from Democrats.

The measure is currently pending before the Senate Administration Committee, where it had a public hearing March 29. It attracted opposition then from labor groups as well as former Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director Leo Berry, who led that agency and its predecessor, the Department of State Lands, under Democratic governors Tom Judge and Ted Schwinden.

Berry said it makes sense to allow agency heads a small number of politically appointed deputies in order to help them steer their agency in their preferred direction, but he said Knudsen’s proposal is far too broad.

“You don’t need that many exempt positions in an agency,” he said.

Knudsen acknowledged at the hearing that the 10% figure for political appointees might be too high. A proposed amendment posted to the Legislature’s bill tracking system would limit large agencies to 60 political appointees each. An unsuccessful bill, Senate Bill 310, proposed earlier in the session by Sen. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, would have provided agency heads with as many as three appointed positions, depending on the size of the department.

Gianforte, elected last fall, campaigned on bringing new leadership to state agencies in order to instill “a culture of customer service” after 16 years when Democratic governors controlled the executive branch.

Gianforte spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke said Tuesday that the governor’s office “has not lobbied” for HB 588. Stroyke didn’t say whether the governor would sign the bill if it’s passed by the Legislature, instead providing a routine statement that “the governor will carefully consider any bill the Legislature sends to his desk.”

The bill has been backed in public hearings by the Montana Department of Justice, headed by Attorney General Austin Knudsen (no relation to Casey Knudsen). Legislative records indicate that DOJ Deputy Solicitor General Brent Mead, formerly the head of the right-leaning Montana Policy Institute, also played an active role in the measure’s drafting.

Disclosure: Former Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director Leo Berry is a board member of the Greater Montana Foundation, which is a funder of Montana Free Press’ Long Streets economic reporting project. MTFP’s major supporters and editorial independence policy are available here.

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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.