Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) - Gov. Greg Gianforte and public employee unions announced an agreement on a new pay plan for state workers last week.

However, it will still need to win approval from the Montana Legislature during the upcoming 2023 session.

The Gianforte administration, the Montana Federation of Public Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees released an initial outline of their proposal on Friday.

The agreement would provide workers with a raise of $1.50 an hour or 4%, whichever is greater, in each of the next two fiscal years.

It would also provide an additional one-time payment of up to $1,040 for each employee, and it would freeze costs for single members’ health benefits.

The administration and unions said their plan will help address issues like the rising cost of living and the challenge of filling vacant positions.

They will next have to make that case to lawmakers.

“In the Legislature, the governor always proposes; the Legislature disposes,” said Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who chaired the Appropriations Committee last session.

The committee is responsible for hearing all spending bills and doing much of the work on the state budget.

Jones said he likes the basic structure of the pay plan, though much will depend on the final details.

He said the split between a flat raise and a percentage increase could benefit lower-income workers who’ve been hit hard by inflation and provide bigger salary bumps for positions the state is having trouble recruiting for.

Jones said there’s been more competition for the state to fill jobs like engineers and IT professionals since they can often work remotely.

“I have no doubt that with 150 different people in the Legislature, there’s no easy course for any action,” Jones said. “But I do believe most people recognize that there is wage pressure on the ground, like we have not seen for decades.”

Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, said the plan may not have everything her party wanted, but she believes it was a good negotiating process between the governor and the unions.

Cohenour expects Democrats to stand behind the result the two sides came up with.

“I have been really concerned about how slow government has been to react to the need for increases in wages for public employees,” she said. “These are the folks that basically kept the state running all during the pandemic. They worked so hard to maintain critical services in communities across the state of Montana, and they deserve to have a fair agreement that recognizes them for the work that they’ve done to keep the state of Montana going.”

This proposal is significantly larger than recently negotiated pay plans.

Back in 2021, the Legislature approved a single 55¢ that will take effect this November and in 2019, they approved 50¢ raises for two consecutive years.

Jones said he believes most Republicans will see a need for a pay increase.

“Certainly the Republican caucus will want to be as conservative as possible, it’ll certainly want to make sure that government’s operating as efficiently as possible,” he said. “But it’s also not lost on Republicans – especially employers such as myself, and a lot of the caucus do employ folks – that in the times of 8% and 9% inflation, you’re going to have to be able to pay a wage that allows your employees to work for you.”

Cohenour said she’s hopeful lawmakers will recognize that the state has strong revenues coming in, and they’ll support putting some of that toward state employees.

“I’m excited and I’m thrilled with the fact that the governor’s office is taking into consideration the fact that we think that we have the money ongoing to provide these increases,” she said. “I do hope that we’re also looking at future increases for public employees that will realize what’s happening in the economy and the inflation that’s hitting these union families in communities across Montana.”