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Matt Singer on August 23, 2006 - 7:52am
Originally Published August 22, 2006 Associated Press by Susan Gallagher HELENA, Mont. - Montana's attorney general defended state employees Tuesday in the wake of an anti-union advertising campaign, and a pro-union group challenged claims that the ads are unrelated to upcoming ballot measures in several states. The advertising insults state employees and demeans their work, said Attorney General Mike McGrath, who heads the Montana Department of Justice. A newspaper ad Monday portrayed employees in the state Motor Vehicle Division - part of the Justice Department - as hostile providers of poor service who receive excessive compensation under union contracts. "For anyone to suggest that Montana Motor Vehicle Division field bureau employees are overpaid is laughable," McGrath said in a news release. "They license more than 162,000 drivers of all ages and abilities each year, and they do an exemplary job at a wage that is barely livable." Pay for all examiners in the division's field offices averages $13.31 an hour. License clerks start at $8.37. The Center for Union Facts, based in Washington, D.C., began advertising against public-employee unions last week in Montana, which was chosen with Oregon, Nevada and Michigan for the media campaign. The three western states have fall ballot measures that would cap government spending. Such a measure has been proposed in Michigan, as well, but state elections officials have not yet certified petitions to put it on the ballot. Public-employee unions in Montana oppose the ballot proposal and at least one maintains Union Facts' advertising is motivated by support for caps on government spending. Union Facts executive Richard Berman denied any link to the ballot measures during a telephone interview Monday. The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., quoted Berman as saying the measures "were a factor but not the controlling factor" in choosing states in which to advertise. A Union Facts representative participated in a Chicago meeting of spending-cap advocate Americans for Limited Government last weekend and shared information about the advertising, according to the pro-union Progressive States Network, which says it works to help pass "progressive legislation" in all states by assisting "forward-thinking legislators." Union Facts spokeswoman Sarah Longwell confirmed a representative of her organization attended the Chicago meeting and talked about the advertising. "We make presentations to lots of different groups," Longwell said. "To assume we're connected with every group we present to, or have meetings with, is really very foolish." Responding to McGrath's criticism, Longwell said the ads are aimed not at public employees but at union bosses, they are designed to stir debate, and "Mike is missing the humorous point in our ad." Berman said Union Facts was established seven months ago and receives money from individuals, businesses and foundations. He refused to give names. Assertions by Union Facts critics that funding comes from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were dismissed Tuesday by Randy Johnson, a Chamber vice president. Funding for the Progressive States Network includes union money.