HELENA - Most of Montana's top state elected officials are scheduled soon to receive healthy automatic pay raises for the next two years.
Some will be accepting the pay increases, while others won't.
These pay hikes, which go into effect July 1, range from as high as 9.3 percent over two years for Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, while Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau's pay will remain frozen.
Some 11,600 state employees also face a two-year pay freeze because the 2011 Legislature rejected the deal negotiated last fall by the Schweitzer administration and three major state employee unions. It called for a 1 percent increase in January 2012 and a 3 percent hike a year later.
In addition, those state employees making more than $45,000 a year are coming off a previous two-year pay freeze they agreed to before the 2009 Legislature when the state tax collections were plunging. Those making less than $45,000 a year received a one-time $450 payment then.
So why does this pay discrepancy exist between the state's top elected officials and state workers who plow and patrol our highways, guard our prisoners and take care of our disabled people in institutions?
It's state law.
Since the 1990s, state elected officials have received automatic pay adjustments every two years based on a survey of the salaries for the same posts in Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and here. For example, the five states' salaries for governor are averaged, and Montana's governor's salary is moved to whatever the regional average is.
No legislative approval is required for these automatic pay hikes. Before this law was enacted, the Legislature set state elected officials' salaries, with some restrictions.
These surveys occur in June of even-numbered years, and the automatic pay raises take effect on July 1 of the next year.
The fact that most of Montana's elected officials' salaries keep rising indicates this state's salaries have been below the regional averages.
In contrast, the Legislature must approve the money to pay for state employees' pay raises negotiated by the governor's administration and public employee unions.
This year, the Republican-controlled Legislature refused to pass the pay raise negotiated by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's administration.
Here's a summary of what the new annual salaries will be for two years after raises that take effect July 1. Some elected officials are accepting the pay hikes, while others aren't.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer's pay will rise to $108,167 for an 8 percent raise. Both the Democratic governor and Republican lieutenant governor, who declined the pay raises in 2009, are accepting them this time.
Lt. Gov. Bohlinger's pay goes to $86,362 for a 9.3 percent increase.
Attorney General Steve Bullock's pay was slated to reach $106,099 for a 6.4 percent increase. He's declining the raise because state employees saw their pay frozen. Two years ago, Bullock, a Democratic, said he would accept the raise and donate it to charity.
Secretary of State Linda McCulloch's salary was slated to go to $86,018 for a 4.4 percent hike. The Democrat is declining her raise because state employees' pay was frozen, just as she did two years ago.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Juneau's pay after the survey would up the exactly the same as it was the past two years, $104,635. In 2009, the Democrat said she would donate her raise to charity.
State Auditor Monica Lindeen's pay will rise to $86,018 for a 4.4 percent raise. Lindeen, a Democrat, plans on donating the increase to charity, just as she donated her 2009 pay hike to her alma mater, Montana State University-Billings.
Public Service Commission Chairman Travis Kavulla, R-Great Falls, will see his pay rise to $95,651 for an 8 percent increase. He couldn't be reached for comment on whether he was taking the raise.
Public Service Commissioners Bill Gallagher, R-Helena, Gail Gutsche, D-Missoula, Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, and John Vincent, D-Gallatin Gateway, will receive raises to bring their pay to $94,531 each for 8 percent increases. Molnar said he will take his pay hike to cover the rising travel expenses between Helena and Laurel. Vincent said he is declining the raise because state employees didn't receive one. Gallagher and Gutsche couldn't be reached for comment.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath's pay will increase to $122,686 for a 6.5 percent raise.
Supreme Court Justices Beth Baker, Patricia Cotter, Brian Morris, James Nelson, James Rice and Mike Wheat will have their salaries rise to $121,434 apiece for 6.6 percent raises.
Supreme Court Clerk Ed Smith get a 5.7 percent raise to bring his salary $85,212.
District Court judges throughout Montana will see their salary increase to $113,928 apiece for 6.6 percent hikes.
The judicial officeholders weren't asked whether they were keeping the raises.
Schweitzer said he and Bohlinger agreed not to take the about $9,000 in pay raises combined two years ago when the economy was suffering and state employees agreed to a pay freeze.
"Today, we have more than $330 million in cold hard cash in the bank, five times as much as the average over the previous 20 years," he said.
Schweitzer said he and Bohlinger decided to take the salary they are entitled to be paid by state law.
"We both agree we should receiver our salary as prescribed by the state," he said. "We've done our sacrifice like anyone else."
Schweitzer added that he was disappointed the Legislature rejected the state employees' raises and "didn't recognize the sacrifice and the talents of state employees."
Public Service Commissioner Molnar said he'll take the raise.
"Right now, I go home (to Laurel) on weekends and come back and it costs me over $1,000 a month (in fuel)," he said.
Molnar said he is also paying for an apartment in Helena where he resides four days a week, and the law also requires him to have a home in his district.
Others, such as McCulloch, Bullock, Lindeen and Vincent, are rejecting the raise or donating it charity.
McCulloch said she would have considered taking the raise if state employees had received theirs.
"I have some of the lowest banded folks in state government working for me," she said, referring to the state pay system. McCulloch said it wouldn't be fair for her to take the raise when their pay is frozen.
When elected officials turn down pay raises, the money simply reverts to the state general fund, said state Budget Director David Ewer.
Public employee unions aren't critical of the elected officials' taking their pay raises, even though state employees are seeing their pay frozen.
"I don't begrudge anybody a salary increase," said Quinton Nyman, executive director of the Montana Public Employees Association. "My disappointment is that the Legislature couldn't see fit to pass a very modest pay plan for state employees.
Automatic pay raises for top elected officials are set by state law and there isn't much anyone can do about it.
"This biennium, the money is there to pay those salary raises, and the money is there to pay state employees," he said.
Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT union, said the elected officials are receiving what amounts to market-based pay scheme for those jobs through the regional salary averaging.
"It's always been a goal of unions representing state employees, and it should be a goal of the state to see that state employees are paid pursuant to market so that we can recruit and retain and not look like frankly we're ungrateful for the work that people that do and we don't recognize the cost of living is moving forward no matter what."
Feaver added, "I'm very disappointed obviously that state employees get zero, zero, zero, zero, but I don't hold it against elected officials that they receive pay increases predicated on a market of some sort, one that surrounds us, the surround states. Good for them."