Governor’s office turns against political appointment bill

A bill to expand political appointments for agencies under the Governor’s Office lost the administration’s support last week, with the lieutenant governor arguing an amendment to include the other elected offices went too far.

Senate Bill 424 would increase the number of political appointments in state government not by adding new employees but allowing officials to swap vacant positions with personal staff. Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, is carrying the proposal.

Lawmakers in 2021 struck down a similar proposal they thought went too far, a fate that appears possible once again: What started off as this session’s scaled-down measure would now theoretically put more than half of the Secretary of State’s Office under the category of political appointees.

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Elected statewide officials are already allowed 10 personal staff they can remove and replace at will as a function of effectuating their vision for the office.

The bill initially allowed two or three, depending on the size of the agency, political appointments for each agency director, but only under the governor’s administration. Those agencies include the Department of Labor and Industry, Public Health and Human Services, as well as Fish, Wildlife and Parks and others.

The Montana State Capitol in Helena.

The Montana State Capitol in Helena.

Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras was first up to testify in support of SB 424 when it had its initial hearing in late February before the Senate State Administration Committee.

“This would be so helpful to our department heads to be able to bring in people they can work closely with and have full confidence in,” Juras said.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen also testified in support of the bill that day — but with a catch.

“What would make it even better is an amendment where you didn’t just apply it to the governor’s office and you applied it to all the executive elected officials,” Knudsen told the committee. “It’s a fact, we often times when there’s an administration change and you come in and you take over, you don’t always have all the nonexempt staff who are rowing in the same direction as you. … That’s a bipartisan problem.”

Attorney General Austin Knudsen

Attorney General Austin Knudsen attends the March for Life in the state Capitol Rotunda.

The committee did ultimately approve an amendment, granting the same appointed staff expansions to the Secretary of State, State Auditor, Superintendent of Public Instruction and Attorney General.

By the time the bill passed the Senate and reached its first hearing in the House State Administration Committee on Monday, the Governor’s Office had retracted its support due largely to the percentages of positions that would become politically appointed positions.

The Secretary of State’s Office, for example, would have 19 politically appointed positions for a 34-person staff, meaning 56% of that agency could be subject to potentially politically driven turnover.

“When we put together the numbers of exempt staff we wanted for the executive agencies it was very small,” Juras said in testifying against the bill before the House State Administration Committee.

Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras receives a standing ovation

Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras receives a standing ovation during the State of the State address on Jan. 25, 2023 in the state Capitol.

Mandeville, the lawmaker carrying the bill, endorsed the amendment.

“Honestly it makes sense in my mind to give these division administrators some support as well,” he said Monday.

The Governor’s Office told the Montana State News Bureau SB 424 is not an administration or agency bill.

Legislative drafting records trace the bill’s genesis not to Mandeville’s own engineering, but to Senate Republican spokesperson Kyle Schmauch, former spokesperson for the State Auditor’s Office when current Congressman Matt Rosendale held the post. Prior to Rosendale’s election, the office was held by Democrat Monica Lindeen.

In a statement Monday, Schmauch said the bill was developed by officials who had been part of transitioning administrations from one political party to another.

“Several of us who’ve been involved in transitions between administrations over the years recognize the value of elected and appointed officials having a core team that they trust to help them execute their vision for their office,” Schmauch said. “… The idea behind the bill is to set top-level officials up for success by letting them have a few appointed staff to help them fulfill their responsibilities and objectives, without adding positions or growing government.”

During the 2021 session lawmakers considered and ultimately killed a similar bill, House Bill 588. Rather than a set number of two or three political appointment employees like Mandeville’s bill, HB 588 would have granted officials the latitude to appoint up to 10% of their staff.

That could have amounted to hundreds of appointees and, although the bill sponsor whittled that limit down to 50 appointments per agency, 11 Republicans joined Democrats in the Senate in voting against the bill.

Schmauch said Monday he had no involvement in the 2021 attempt to expand political appointments, but noted that attempt failed last session and he brought it up to senators going into the current session.

In a statement to the Montana State News Bureau, the Governor’s Office said it was not working with anyone on an amendment for Mandeville’s bill and remained opposed to the “administrative bloat” that would take place if it passed in current form.

The Attorney General’s Office, however, said it is working on an amendment to cap the appointed staff to 3%. The state’s largest agency, DPHHS, has nearly 3,000 employees, meaning there could be 90 appointed staff. 

It was unclear Monday when the House State Administration Committee will take action on the bill.

Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, testified against the bill in the Senate in early March. The state already imposes a “vacancy savings” reduction on agencies, she said, in which the state seeks to reduce personal services costs over time to manage the growth of government.

“We impose a 4% vacancy savings on our state employees and yet we’re authorizing more management positions in this bill,” she said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Unions oppose new appointments

The state’s employee union and AFL-CIO have both stood as vocal critics against the measure, which would not create new employee positions but rather allow officials to turn vacant positions into political appointments.

Quint Nyman, deputy executive director with the Montana Federation of Public Employees, told the Senate State Administration the bill “smacks of political cronyism.”

“In appointed positions, you can be your highest donors second cousin twice removed, you get the job,” Nyman told the House State Administration Committee three weeks later, in Monday’s hearing. “Through state hiring, it is the most qualified candidate who serves a probationary period and proves their worth as they go through the process.”

The AFL-CIO’s Amanda Frickle said clearing permanent positions to make room for personal staff would only exacerbate hiring woes that have plagued state agencies.

“You’re not decreasing the work. What happens is that workload gets shifted to existing employees,” she said. “If you have an issue with turnover and burnout and people leaving the agencies, you’re only going to further that issue by making the colleagues who have stayed take on that workload.”

Knudsen pushed back on that notion in response to committee questions Monday.

“The idea that we’re just going to stick in political appointees, someone who was a good donor to my campaign, that doesn’t help me run the highway patrol, that doesn’t help me run the motor vehicle division,” Knudsen said.

The attorney general also opened up about some dissent within his own office after he stepped into the Department of Justice following his election in 2020.

“When I took over the Department of Justice, you end up inheriting a lot of state employees who are not politically aligned with you and frankly were having personal problems carrying out my directives and moving the Department of Justice in the direction I wanted to move it,” he told the committee.

Nyman, however, disputed the idea that political appointments would be one-for-one in terms of the positions they were replacing.

“If you convert a driver’s license examiner position to an (appointed) position, that person won’t be out in the field conducting driver’s examinations,” Nyman said.

Montana State News Bureau

Capitol bureau reporter Seaborn Larson covers justice-related areas of state government and organizations that wield power. His past work includes local crime and courts reporting at the Missoulian and Great Falls Tribune, and daily news reporting at the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell.

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