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Military veterans have warned Montana legislators more court fights...

By WILLIAM HANSON

HELENA, Mont. -- Military veterans have warned Montana legislators more court fights will ensue if they repeal a state law that gives veterans and the handicapped first claim in getting state and local government jobs.

Lawmakers, nevertheless, indicated Monday they will drastically change, if not repeal, the highly controversial law during their special session this week.

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Gov. Ted Schwinden called the session to end the tumult in government personnel offices caused by a recent Montana Supreme Court interpretion of a 1921 law unlike any other in the United States.

The court ruled that the law requires that veterans, their spouses and some dependents as well as the handicapped get 'absolute preference' in state, county and municipal job openings as well as those in the state university system and the public schools.

The controversy pits veterans' groups against women's organizations, with the former servicemen claiming they deserve preference because they served their country, many risking their lives, while the women argue discrimination because more than 90 percent of the state's veterans are men.

Phil Strope, a Helena lawyer and retired military officer, told the lawmakers Monday, 'You'll gain only a whole group of new lawsuits by repealing this law.'

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John Mahan, another Helena lawyer and former national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, asked, 'What's the terrible crisis that requires a special session? Do you wish to be a party to taking away, two weeks before Christmas, what was granted by a grateful state and nation?'

Dennis Taylor, administrator of the State Personnel Division, testified there was potential for 'a staggering, potential, financial effect' if the law is unchanged. About $5 million dollars in damages is at stake in 16 separate suits brought since the Supreme Court initially upheld the 'absolute preference' in June, he said.

Employee morale has dropped, as well, Taylor reported, saying some employees will not apply for career advancement fearing such moves would be subject to a successful challenge by another worker with a veteran's preference. Other workers are leaving the state.

The leading proponent of repeal is the Republican President of the Senate, Stan Stephens of Havre. 'We've all been demeaned by events of recent months,' he said. 'Preference for one results in discrimination for another.'

Women also are pushing strongly for major surgery on the law. A disproportionate number of men already hold key jobs in state government, said Debbie Flentie of the Department of Revenue. Yet, women make up more than 60 percent of the total workforce.

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