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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Legislative Committee Begins Investigation Into Public Employee Settlements

The Capitol dome in Helena, MT.
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio
Montana Capitol dome, Helena.

A Republican-led legislative committee is investigating state settlements paid out to public employees under the administration of Democratic Governor Steve Bullock. The Special Select Committee on State Settlement Accountability held its first meeting via phone conference Wednesday.

The committee is following up on an information request Republican Senate Majority leader Fred Thomas made to legislative auditors last year. The reply he received in December, Thomas says, leads him to believe that there has been a sharp increase in the amount of money paid out in settlements with public employees since 2014.

With that information in hand, Republican House Speaker Austin Knudsen and Senate President Scott Sales formed the the Special Select Committee on State Settlement Accountability in mid-March.

Montana Senate President Scott Sales, left, and House Speaker Austin Knudsen, both Republicans, are on opposite sides of the call for a special session
Credit Corin Cates-Carney
Senate President Scott Sales and House Speaker Austin Knudsen.

“Since it’s trending up, we want to know to the best of our ability where that taxpayer dollars are going and if we have a problem," says Senator Scott Sales.

Democratic legislative leaders caution against moving forward on this investigation, which could cost an estimated $5,000 or more for every in-person meeting, according to Sales.

Democrats say the Legislative Audit Division is already scheduled to review employee settlement data and issue a report to lawmakers by the end of the year, so it doesn’t make sense to convene this select committee now, when the state budget is already in the red.

Sen. Jon Sesso (D) SD37.
Credit Montana Legislature
Sen. Jon Sesso (D) SD37.

"I’m very interested in finding out more," Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso says, "but I do believe that this base has been covered very adequately, and for the right reasons, by the audit committee."

Sesso says Democratic leadership was not informed about the creation of this select committee and it appears to have some political ambitions.

The committee is comprised of six Republicans and four Democrats.

Democratic leadership has encouraged their party members named on the committee to give their attention to what they call "more pressing legislative matters."

Governor Steve Bullock’s administration is taking a more aggressive stance. In a press release, the governor’s spokesperson wrote that the committee on settlements is a, "Washington D.C.-style witch hunt," and a waste of taxpayer dollars and time.

The governor’s budget director told MTPR back in March when the committee was announced that the governor’s office will do everything it can to cooperate with the committee while still protecting the rights of employees.

The governor's office says Republicans are misrepresenting the data, and that what appears to be an increase in settlements to employees is just a change in the state’s accounting practices.

Senate President Scott Sales was says there is no timeline or number of meetings set for the committee.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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