HELENA – Most Montana statewide and district elected officials will receive pay raises on July 1, with Supreme Court justices, District Court judges and the Supreme Court clerk seeing the largest percentage increases for the next two years.
Before 20 years ago, the Legislature set the pay for state elected officials, and raises weren’t always given on regular basis. Critics said politics often drove the decisions.
A 1995 state law removed the pay decisions from the Legislature and set up a system to adjust elected officials’ pay automatically every two years, based on a regional average for each elected position.
The automatic pay raises take effect July 1 in odd-numbered years, based on a five-state survey taken the previous year looking at what elected officials are paid in Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. The five-state average salary for each office then becomes the new salary for that office for the next two years.
State legislators, who are paid only when they meet in session 90 days every two years and during interim meetings, are not included in the law.
Here are the new annual salaries for state elected officials on July 1:
- Gov. Steve Bullock will get a 3.1 percent raise, with his salary rising to $111,570. His percentage pay raise is third from the bottom of the state and district officials.
- Attorney General Tim Fox will receive a 6.6 percent raise, bringing his salary to $123,499.
- Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and State Auditor Monica Lindeen each will see their pay rise by 4.7 percent to $92,236 annually.
- Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath will get an 8.9 percent hike to bring his salary to $137,570, the highest of any Montana state elected official.
The six Supreme Court justices will get the highest percentage pay raise of all elected officials at 9 percent, increasing their salaries to $136,181 each. They are Justices Beth Baker, Patricia Cotter, Laurie McKinnon, James Rice, James Shea and Mike Wheat.
Salaries for the 46 district judges around Montana will move up to $126,132 for a 7.3 percent increase.
Supreme Court Clerk Ed Smith will get a 7.9 percent raise to boost his pay to $96,658.
Public Service Commission Chairman Brad Johnson will see his salary go to $101,772 for a 3.7 percent increase.
The other four public service commissioners each will get 2.9 percent pay raises to increase their salaries to $100,819 each. They are commissioners Kirk Bushman, Travis Kavulla, Roger Koopman and Bob Lake.
Two officials, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and Lt. Gov. Angela McLean, will receive no raises because the five-stage average for their jobs didn’t increase. Juneau’s pay will stay at $104,635, while McLean’s salary will remain at $86,362.
Salaries for some Montana elected offices historically have been among the lowest paid in the 50 states.
A report earlier this year by the National Center on State Court showed that salaries for Montana Supreme Court justices ranked 51st in the country, trailing those in the other 49 states and the District of Columbia.
Montana District Court judges also ranked 51st among trial court judges nationally. This study used the current salaries for judges and justices, not their new pay levels as of July 1.
“We’re usually between 49th and 51st in the country,” said Supreme Court administrator Beth McLaughlin. “We’ve very pleased with the salary increase this time because it moves us up above 51st.”
She added, “Frankly, everyone in Montana has a vested interest in attracting a highly qualified judiciary, and part of how you do that is paying a decent salary.”
McLaughlin said people want experienced attorneys to become judges, and many are giving up long careers as lawyers in private practice.
Last year, the Montana governor’s salary was 40th highest among the states, according to a comparison by the Council of State Governments in its “Book of the States.”
As for attorney general, Montana placed more in the middle of the states in pay last year – 28th highest – in the Council of State Governments comparisons.
As for other non-elected state employees, the 2015 Legislature late in the session passed a pay increase for each of them of 50 cents an hour in each of the next two years, or $2,080 total over both years.
The percentages of the pay raises will vary by the individual, but those in lower-paying jobs will see higher percentage hikes than those making higher salaries. The pay raises for state workers will come in January 2016 and January 2017.
After some legislative sessions when the Legislature refused to raise state employees’ salaries, some elected officials chose not to accept their pay hikes or gave them to charity.
Spokesmen for the top two executive branch employees, Bullock and Fox, each said their boss would accept the pay raise in July.
Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT union, which represents a number of state employees, said he supports having state elected officials receive pay raises automatically as Montana now does it.
“Bless them all,” he said. “I’m glad they got raises. They’re not paid all that great anyway. They earn every penny they get. I’m glad they have a statutory process that provides those raises and doesn’t require anybody to go to the Legislature hat in hand to ask for a pay increase for our state officials.”
He said it would be great if state employees also automatically got pay raises through similar comparisons.
“We ought to be embarrassed that we have state employees on bended knee to effectively beg for what they bargained for,” Feaver said.