HELENA—Some Montana elected officials will get raises on July 1, led by Attorney General Tim Fox with an 11.3 percent pay hike, while Gov. Steve Bullock and three others will see their pay frozen for the next two years.
The disparity has nothing to do with politics or job performance. It’s entirely based on a five-state average calculated every two years to set new salaries for Montana elected officials.
To move these salary decisions out of politics, the Legislature devised this system 18 years ago to set pay for state and district elected officials.
Since then, automatic adjustments occur every two years, based on a five-state survey of what elected officials are paid in Idaho, Wyoming, North and South Dakota and Montana. The average pay for each office becomes new salary for that post here for the next two years.
The Department of Administration’s Human Resources Division conducts the pay survey before June 30 in even-numbered years. The last one was in 2012.
Salaries are automatically adjusted to the five-state average starting July 1 the next odd-numbered year.
Here are the annual salaries and percentage raises for state elected officials starting July 1:
Gov. Bullock’s annual salary remains frozen at $108,167.
Likewise, Lt. Gov. John Walsh’s salary will remain the same at $86,362, as will Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau’s at $104,635.
Attorney General Fox’s pay will go to $115,817, an 11.3 percent hike from the salary he received when he took office in January.
That moves Fox’s salary ahead of Bullock’s. It’s believed to be the first time in years that Montana’s attorney general is being paid more than its governor.
Collecting 2.4 percent raises will be Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and Auditor Monica Lindeen, whose salaries go to $88,099.
Public Service Commission Chairman Bill Gallagher, R-Helena, gets a 2.6 percent raise when his salary increases to $98,125.
The other four public service commissioners will see 3.6 percent raises as their salaries go up to $97,980 apiece. They are Commissioners Kirk Bushman, R-Billings; Travis Kavulla, R-Great Falls; Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman; and Bob Lake, R-Hamilton.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath will get a 2.9 percent raise to bring his salary to $126,269. His salary remains the highest among all statewide elected officials, excluding the congressional delegation.
Six Supreme Court justices will see by 2.9 percent pay hikes, bringing their salaries to $124,049, second only to McGrath. They are Justices Beth Baker, Patricia Cotter, Laurie McKinnon, Brian Morris, James Rice and Mike Wheat.
Supreme Court Clerk Ed Smith will get a 2.8 percent increase to bring his salary to $89,571.
Montana’s 46 district judges each will get a 3.2 percent raise, moving their salaries to $117,600.
This reliance on averages sometimes produces strange developments.
From 2010 to 2012, South Dakota chopped its salaries for governor by $17,300, lieutenant governor by more than $53,000 (from $115,044 to $61,800) and school superintendent by $11,500.
These South Dakota pay reductions, plus pay freezes imposed for those three offices in Idaho and Wyoming, helped hold flat the salaries for Montana’s governor, lieutenant governor and school superintendent for two years.
Another unusual twist involved a Montana official declining to take a raise.
As attorney general, Bullock was due a 6.4 percent raise in 2011 to bring his salary to $106,099 from $99,712. He declined.
When Fox succeeded Bullock as attorney general in January, he began at the salary of
$104,077. That’s less than Bullock’s pay would have been had he taken the raise to $106,099, but more than the $99,712 pay Bullock kept.
That development, plus a hefty raise topping $42,000 for North Dakota’s attorney general, helped boost the Montana attorney general’s salary up to nearly $116,000.
Fox, the lone Montana elected official to get a double-digit percentage increase, is accepting the raise.
“Attorney General Fox is deeply grateful for the opportunity to serve Montanans, and he will continue to work hard to earn the salary that’s been determined by a process set by the state Legislature,” his spokesman John Barnes said.
In three of the five neighboring, the attorney general makes more than the governor.
Nationally, Montana ranks near the bottom in governor’s salary, as it does with most other elected offices’. A 2012 survey by the Council of State Governments showed 40 states paid their governor more than Montana’s $108,167 salary, while nine paid less.
Pennsylvania paid its governor more than $183,000 to lead the nation, while Maine was the lowest at $70,000.
Bullock declined comment for the story.
Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT, a union that represents teachers and government workers, praised the 1995 Legislature its system to set elected officials’ salaries by using the five-state average. He contrasted that to the difficulties that unions have getting the Legislature to approve pay deals they negotiated for state employees with governors.
During the 2013 Legislature, unions and Bullock sought money for 5 percent raises in each of the next two years for state employees, most of whom hadn’t had a raise in base pay for four years. The Legislature stripped out the 5 percent raises and provided 75 percent of the money needed to fund it.
Unions will be starting negotiations with the Bullock administration to come up with a raise.
“I’d be delighted to have automatic pay increases instead of this crazy thing we do,” Feaver said. “What we do is so highly politically charged.”