HELENA — Amendments scaling back a bill that would have boosted the number of political appointees in state agencies weren’t enough to get it past the finish line in the state Senate, where it failed a final vote Tuesday.

An earlier version of the bill would have given large state agencies the ability to convert as much as 10% of their workforce from career staff hired on a competitive basis to political appointees who serve at the pleasure of elected or governor-appointed agency heads — potentially making hundreds of state jobs political appointments. For the State Department of Public Health and Human Services, for example, that could have meant reclassifying 270 of the agency’s 2,700 jobs.

Proponents, including Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s Department of Justice, said the change would make it easier for newly elected officials to shift the course of agency bureaucracies by appointing like-minded aides and preventing outgoing administrations from transferring political staff into permanent positions. Opponents argued the shift would politicize professional agencies and open high-level government positions to nepotism.

The bill, which passed the state House March 2, had been amended by the Senate State Administration Committee to define a more limited number of political appointees, up to 10 for large agencies with governor-appointed heads, like DPHHS, and as many as 50 for large agencies with elected heads, like DOJ.

Currently, elected agency heads like the attorney general and superintendent of public instruction are allowed as many as 15 “personal staff,” or political appointees, in their offices. Governor-appointed agency directors aren’t allowed any.

The state Department of Administration said April 21 that there are 63 state employees currently classified as personal staff. The state has about 12,000 workers in total.

House Bill 588, sponsored by Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta (no relation to Austin Knudsen), had passed an initial vote in the Senate 27-23, with opposition from all Democrats and a handful of Republicans. It failed its final vote 19-30, with one senator absent and seven Republicans switching to opposition. 

This story was updated April 21, 2012, to add the number of state employees currently classified as politically appointed personal staff.

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Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network and also earned an engineering degree from Montana State University. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.