North Dakota gives out $8.4M in state worker bonuses in 2021
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota spent $8.4 million this year on bonuses for some state workers, a record sum that was more than double paid out in 2020.
A little more than a third of the nearly 9,300 state employees received the bonuses, including several from Republican Gov. Doug Burgum’s office, according to records obtained by The Associated Press. The bonuses, which grew from $3.5 million last year, helped push total employee compensation to $582 million for 2021, up $40 million from 2020.
The bulk of bonuses paid to employees comes from agencies in the governor’s cabinet, records show. Burgum, who approved $7,100 in bonuses to six of his staffers, defends the program. In a statement, he called the bonuses a “tool authorized by the Legislature to reward performance and help retain team members in a competitive labor market.”
State Office of Management and Budget Director Joe Morrissette, the state’s top budget writer, said the bonus money must come from an agency’s existing salary budget and agency heads are given discretion on how to spend it.
North Dakota agencies turned back $338 million in unspent money to the state general fund in past year, Morrissette said.
The Legislature approved the program in 1999 in an effort to reward, recruit and retain employees for hard-to-fill state jobs. The program is drawing increased criticism from lawmakers and the union that represents state employees because not all agencies choose or are able to give out the bonuses.
John Bjornson, the Legislature’s top attorney, said the bonuses his agency doesn’t give them out because they “have a sense of unfairness to them.” Instead, he said, the agency attempts to hire its employees at salaries that are competitive without the bonuses.
The bonuses are a thorny subject, and not many lawmakers are even aware of the practice, Republican House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said. Information on the bonuses are not readily available to the public without an open records request.
“Perhaps a more specific report could be provided to the Legislature to make (bonuses) more transparent,” said Bjornson, who heads the Legislative Council, the Legislature’s nonpartisan research arm that includes accountants and attorneys.
No legislation has surfaced to stop or amend the legislation that authorizes them. No similar bonus programs are offered in neighboring Minnesota or South Dakota.
Republican state Rep. Rick Becker, of Bismarck, a former gubernatorial candidate, has been a leading critic of the program that has come to light largely from news reports.
“It’s easy and awesome to be so generous and hand out bonuses when it’s not your money,” Becker said.