A little over a week ago Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum hit his opponent, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, over increases to his state salary and office budget.
Stenehjem, who has been in the AG’s office since getting elected there in 2000, has the highest salary among all statewide officials and saw a roughly 42 percent increase in his office’s budget in the current biennium.
The office budget criticism doesn’t seem terribly on-point to me. As I’ve explained previously, the bulk of that increase came in the form of staffing new law enforcement officers in the Bureau of Criminal Investigations, which Stenehjem oversees, as well as moving attorneys from the North Dakota University System’s budget into the AG’s budget.
I was also dismissive of the criticism of Stenehjem’s salary, noting that it wasn’t all that out of line nationally. According to Ballotpedia, in 2015 Stenehjem’s $147,996 yearly salary was the 11th highest in the nation.
But I went back and took a longer, deeper look at the salary and it is pretty clear that the pay for the attorney general has, under Stenehjem, taken a much different trajectory than that of other statewide office holders. Here’s the trend line for pay for the various statewide elected officials. As you’ll note, one of these lines is not like the others (click for a larger view):
The salary for the Attorney General will have, by July 2016, increased by almost 119 since Stenehjem first took office in 2001. That’s a big increase, far out of line with the pay for any other statewide office, and it deserves an explanation since it has become an issue in the gubernatorial race.
The legislation which resulted in this pay increase came out of the 2009 legislative session. HB1003 was the budget for the AG’s office that year, and after it was passed by the House it was amended in the Senate appropriations committee to tie the salary for the AG’s office to the salary for state Supreme Court justices. The amended bill was passed out of the committee with a unanimous 14-0 “do pass” vote, which you can see in the Senate Journal on page 1002:
From what I gathered from discussion in the conference committee on the bill, the intent here was to ensure that the pay for the attorney general position was commensurate with the requirements for the office. Only two statewide offices in North Dakota have specific education requirements. They are justice of the state supreme court and attorney general, which each require a law degree. Lawmakers thought the attorney general, because he or she would need the same level of qualification as a justice, should be paid like a justice.
The change was a little bit controversial. When the amendments to HB1003 came to a vote of the full Senate a division was requested by Democrats – specifically state Senator Tracy Potter of Bismarck. In North Dakota’s legislature lawmakers can move to divide bills up for vote, which has the effect of voting on specific parts of the bill. The division Potter requested had the full Senate chamber vote on just the amendments related to the AG’s salary, and then the rest of the amendments separately:
It was not a successful maneuver. Division A, as described above, was passed with no votes from Potter and three other Democrats. The full bill ultimately passed unanimously, 47-0.
Now, because the Senate made amendments to a bill the House sent them, the two chambers have to reconcile the differences. They do this through what’s called a conference committee, which includes lawmakers from both chambers who work out compromises on the differences in legislation before they’ve voted on again by the full chambers.
The bill was amended again in conference committee. Rep. Lee Kaldor, a Democrat, didn’t like the idea of tying pay for an executive branch office to pay for a judicial branch position. He offered an amendment which stated a dollar amount for the AG’s salary instead of stating that it will be the same as that of the justices.
This is how the final language looked:
That changed eased some qualms about the salary increase, but it’s pretty clear that there were still some reservations. Below are transcripts from the conference committee discussions on the bill. It’s a long document, because the AG’s office budget is about a lot more than the pay for the AG, but you can see the pertinent discussions on pages 188-191, 194-196, and 198-204.
There were definitely some reservations, even among Republicans, about the salary increase. Here is one telling excerpt in which both Rep. Al Carlson and Rep. Blair Thoreson, both of Fargo, express some skepticism and allude to further doubts from Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Delzer of Underwood.
The conference committee also eyed the timing of the pay raises carefully, timing them to take place after the next time the AG’s office would be on the statewide ballot. The idea being that the voters could decide who would get to benefit from the pay increase.
“You’ll notice that the AG’s office did not suggest, initiate, or advocate for the issue, but was occasionally present for clarification,” Stenehjem campaign manager Nate Martindale told me of the debate.
Still, the AG’s office budget remained controversial. When it was reported out of committee back to the House it failed in its first vote 46-48. On reconsideration it passed 77-16. The Senate then approved the bill unanimously.
Lawmakers I’ve spoken to who were in the House chamber at the time said the reconsideration vote was very much a result of dissatisfaction over the salary increase. Unfortunately there is no video available of the floor sessions from the 2009 session.
Can Stenehjem be blamed for the salary increase? I guess it depends on if you don’t like the increase. It seems at least some lawmakers were won over by the idea that the pay for the AG should be comparable to the pay for the justices. If you by that argument, then you probably don’t think anyone deserves to be blamed.
If you think the pay increase was inappropriate, then there still isn’t any indication in the public record that Stenehjem or his office lobbied for the increase. But Stenehjem didn’t oppose it either, and who knows what happened outside the record.
Here are the conference committee transcripts and related information:
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