Last session, the ND Legislature approved state employee salaries to increase up to 2% with a $120 a month minimum and $200 month maximum for 2019 and up to a 2.5% increase on for 2020. Last week, the ND Industrial Commission approved pay raises for select agency heads as high as 3.5%. The larger raises come as Governor Burgum is asking agencies to tighten budgets heading into the next session. Why the discrepancy?

Every legislative session tends to be a fight for public employees. The setting of pay increases draws late into the session as the House typically tries to lower the more generous offer by the Senate. Not to mention the battle of retirement and health care which has caused special sessions out of stubbornness of former Majority Leaders. Many lawmakers believe public employees should simply be grateful for their generosity. Others – including myself – believe more can be done.

For 2020, the increase in pay for workers was allowed up to 2.5%. That was the law set for front-line workers. The public health workers administering covid-19 tests during a pandemic, highway patrol keeping residents safe, snowplow operators keeping roads cleared, educators preparing our future, people administering unemployment benefits for people forced out of work, and those helping aid our elderly neighbors and those with disabilities. They are some of the “essential workers” we called heroes at the beginning of this pandemic.

The rules appear to be different for those at the top of state government. On July 29th the Industrial Commission – Governor Burgum, AG Stenehjem, and Ag Commissioner Goerhing – approved salary increases as high as 3.5%. Below you can see a breakdown of those raises first obtained by NDx.

If I were a public health employee administering covid-19 tests day after day, I’d want an explanation why – for example – the head of the Department of Mineral Resources received a larger pay increase than public health employees did. Why is the state regulator and promoter of oil worth more than those testing and tracing the virus causing such havoc for the state? It isn’t anything personal about the individual currently holding the position. Simply, we’re asking some workers to take on greater risk and rewarding them less.

Legislators should be asking questions of the Industrial Commission about rolling out pay increases larger than what was approved by their branch for essential workers. This move by Burgum comes just two weeks after some retention bonuses appear to have exceeded what the Legislature approved as well. Where is the check and balance?

It is safe to expect there won’t be much of a raise following the 2021 session. Burgum has called for budget cuts from agencies. Workers on the front lines, many of whom went years without a raise before 2019, may be asked to endure the same circumstance. It is time for the legislature to get serious and prioritize the essential workers beyond simply words of praise. We need to pay them what they are worth to retain their service.

Tyler Axness
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