Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) Montana needs to be sure it can hire and keep snowplow drivers to clear highways, for starters.

The state needs to fill open positions at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge as well — with a 40 percent vacancy rate, according to the director of the Department of Corrections.

It also needs psychiatric technicians at the state hospital in Warm Springs, among the state’s health care facilities with an “extraordinarily high vacancy rate.”

Tuesday in the House Appropriations Committee, Sen. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, presented a proposal to raise wages for state government workers.

Fitzpatrick said with inflation, he expected the raises would help employees “break even,” not get ahead. However, he said the bill, House Bill 13, was a good start in light of significant vacancies at state agencies that need to be filled.

“The quality of life in this state is very much dependent on state government operating in an efficient and effective manner,” Fitzpatrick said.

In October, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte and the Montana Federation of Public Employees announced they had negotiated the proposal.

No one spoke against the bill, and fiscal officers and state agency leaders lined up to support it. They cited as challenges vacancy rates hitting 20 percent or more, high turnover and employees doing double duty.

Montana is facing significant difficulties in housing availability, for example, and James Fehr, with the Department of Environmental Quality, said agency employees worked weekends and evenings to get on top of a backlog of 400 files that were overdue in subdivision review.

And he said staff are weary.

“This is not sustainable. We need to be more competitive with our wages so that we can fill vacancies,” Fehr said.

In his presentation, Fitzpatrick presented four basic changes outlined in the bill:

  • The Election Day holiday is no longer in effect for executive branch agencies; it will be replaced with a “floating holiday.”
  • Per diem rates for meals are going up a small amount. For example, the reimbursement for breakfast is going from $7.50 to $8.25, and dinner is going from $14.50 to $16. Said Fitzpatrick: “I can say that our employees will be eating an awful lot of hamburgers in the coming biennium.”
  • It adjusts salaries in two steps. First, it gives full-time workers a lump-sum “bonus” of $1,040, essentially a 50-cent hourly raise, on July 1, 2023.
  • Secondly, it would give a $1.50 an hour or 4 percent increase, “whichever is greater,” starting July 1, 2023, the beginning of the 2024 fiscal year. It does the same the following year.

Fitzpatrick said the plan offers a larger percent increase for workers on the lower end of the state pay scale.

For example, he said the $1.50 increase would work out to an 8 percent increase each year for some workers, but a salaried employee earning $78,000 would get a 4 percent bump.

Ryan Osmundson, state budget director, spoke in support of the proposal and praised negotiations with the union. He said the state was having a significant challenge retaining workers with current wages.

“It is very difficult to compete with the private market right now,” Osmundson said.

In closing remarks, Fitzpatrick said having proponents lining up to support him — rather than 50 opponents — was a new experience.

He also joked that he might have made history in seeing former conservative legislator and now lottery director Scott Sales testify in support.

“I got Scott Sales to actually want to spend money,” Fitzpatrick said.