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Our Point of View, by MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver

Apr/May 2009


By the time you read this, the legislature will have adjourned and gone home. I doubt anyone will be pleased with the funding results.


But bad news later. Good news now. As we have session after session, we played great defense. We helped kill bad legislation that would have exacerbated negative impacts the world economic crisis has already inflicted on public programs and services, our members, and our union.


Public school privatization. A tuition tax credit/pay voucher bill has been introduced in every legislative session since 1993. In this session, three different legislators introduced three such bills, Senate Bills 342 (Essmann), 512 (Windy Boy), and HB 624 (More). All dangerous. SB 342 almost grew legs. Tough fight. Our primary defense: It is bad public policy to divert precious, declining public resources to private and sectarian schools. It is unconstitutional to boot.


Article 10.1, Montana State Constitution clearly states, “the legislature shall provide a basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools.” Until such time as the legislature adequately funds public education, it has no business, much less any obligation, to fund private schools.


Article 10.6 just as clearly states, “the legislature . . . shall not make any direct or indirect appropriation from any public fund . . . for any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university . . . controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.” A tax credit for sectarian education is an impermissible indirect appropriation.


Enough legislators bought our argument to kill all three bills, two in committee, and SB 342 on the Senate floor. So, we live to fight the same fight another legislative day.


Right-to-work. Anti-union yahoos will never give up. Never. This session, two different legislators introduced the same right-to-work bill.

After a too-long hearing, SB 194 (McGee) died in a Senate committee. HB 625 (Randall) died in the House Speaker’s drawer where it belonged. For the record, we could not have killed these bills without our private sector union brothers and sisters.


Clean government. Believe it or not there are folks out there who do not appreciate MEA-MFT’s leadership role in killing bad ballot issues meant to gut-shoot government and public schools. There are folks who do not want us engaged in electoral politics. So they introduced HB 421 (Mendenhall) that would have decertified MEA-MFT bargaining units the moment we exercised our constitutional right to defend and promote our interests in ballot issue government and political campaigns. Interesting hearing. Dead bill. But these folks will be back. They look a lot like the folks who want to privatize schools and emasculate unions.


Minimum wage. Only two years ago, we were instrumental in passing a ballot issue increasing the Montana minimum wage, incorporating an annual inflationary adjustment.

As expected, this session suffered two bills, SBs 253 and 254 (Steinbeisser) meant to eliminate the minimum wage inflation factor and apply a “tip credit” for service employees. Both bills failed. More help from private sector unionists.


Board of public education. The board of public education has long served as a favorite whipping boy for legislators who don’t give a rip about our state’s constitutional obligation to provide free quality public elementary and secondary schools.


These legislators scapegoat the board of public education’s constitutional and statutory authority to adopt school accreditation standards. They would rather reserve this authority to the legislature, SB 67 (McGee), or morph the board into an elected charade of hot-button, culture-war warriors, SB 81 (McGee). We worked hard against both of these bills as did friends in the public education community.

Retirement. The world economic crisis has hammered Montana’s teacher and public employee retirement accounts mercilessly. So much value has been lost that it was easy for rightwing anti-government, anti-public school Senator Joe Balyeat to propose that teachers and public employees work until 65 before retiring without penalty. SB 484 provoked tense, ugly moments on the Senate floor—made all the more memorable when minority Democrats effectively killed Balyeat’s bill by actually refusing to vote!


But we who believe we must maintain the promise of a secure retirement for all cannot assume we are done with the issue that Senator Balyeat would have used to bludgeon us bloody raw. Between now and the next regular session, we must work creatively with the governor, responsible and well-intended legislators, and other stakeholders to consider changes in our public and teacher retirement systems that preserve a secure retirement for all who are now retired, all who will soon retire, and all who have yet even to be employed in Montana and enrolled in one of our retirement systems.


To every MEA-MFT legislative contact, thank you! Your dedication to defense made all the difference.