MT legislative committee reviews settlements paid to state employees

Posted at 10:37 AM, Apr 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-26 12:37:29-04

HELENA – A special Montana legislative committee formed to review settlements paid to state employees held its first meeting Wednesday, although several of the members refused to take part.

Republican House Speaker Austin Knudsen and Senate President Scott Sales announced the creation of the Special Select Committee on State Settlement Accountability last month.

They said that since 2013 there has been an apparent growth in the amount of money state government agencies have paid in settlements to employees. They argue the public has not received enough information about those settlements and why they were paid.

Republican leaders point to a report from the state Legislative Audit Division, showing an increase in the amount of expenditures to two state accounts that analysts identified as potentially linked to employee settlements.

Those expenditures reached a total of almost $900,000 in the 2017 fiscal year.

“The committee was put together to take a look at that and see if there are some issues within the state and if we need to work on potentially understanding why the state settlement account has grown to the size that it has,” said Hamilton Rep. Ron Ehli, the House majority leader and the vice-chair of the select committee.

The committee held its first organizational meeting by conference call. Leaders appointed six Republicans and four Democrats to the select committee. However, three of the Democratic members did not take part in the call.

Rep. Brad Hamlett (D-Cascade) was the only Democrat who was part of the call. He said Democratic leaders were unhappy with how the committee was organized.

“It’s the whole procedure of this they take issue with, not the subject,” Hamlett said.

In a letter, House Minority Leader Jenny Eck and Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso criticized the decision not to include an equal number of members from both parties.

They also raised concerns about the cost of convening a special committee and questioned whether its work would even be necessary since the Audit Division is already planning a full audit of employee settlement information that could be completed by the end of the year.

“It would appear to be far more prudent, at the very least, for the legislative leadership to wait until that audit is complete before any additional public resources, including staff time, are expended on the issue,” their letter continued.

Ehli said he was disappointed in the Democratic members’ decision, and that he hoped they would take part in future meetings.

“I think they bring a lot to the table, and they can certainly be a part of the conversation with all of us,” he said. “We should all be interested in trying to find that line between the public’s right to know and issues of privacy.”

Gov. Steve Bullock’s office also responded to the committee’s first meeting.

They questioned legislative leaders’ analysis of the amount paid in settlements, saying one of the state accounts the Audit Division had identified also includes payments made to people who are not state employees.

The governor’s office also said most of the settlements in question are already publicly available.

“Instead of wasting our time and money, they could simply request to see them,” said Ronja Abel, Bullock’s communications director.

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