During the North Dakota Newspaper Association debate in Crosby over the weekend Fargo businessman Doug Burgum hit Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem over his salary and the growth in his office’s budget.
Doug Burgum began by pointing out that Wayne Stenehjem’s salary has increased by $80,000 in his 16 years as attorney general and the agency’s budget has also grown significantly.
“What is it about job you’ve done in the last 16 years that puts you in a position to help rein in the state spending?” asked Burgum, a Fargo businessman.
Burgum has been making a big deal out of salaries for elected officials. In addition to criticizing Stenehjem’s salary, he’s also announced that he would decline his salary if elected governor.
I’m not sure how much voters actually care about this sort of thing. It makes for good campaign talking points, I suppose, but I’m not sure voters are going to cast their ballots on this issue. And, if we compare Stenehjem’s salary to that of attorneys general nationally, we see that while what he’s paid is higher than most states it’s not all that out of line.
According to Ballotpedia, in 2015 Stenehjem’s $147,996 yearly salary was the 11th highest in the nation (it’s the highest among North Dakota’s statewide elected officials). The average salary for attorneys general was $123,550 per year.
As a point of comparison, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch makes $193,400 per year.
There are always some people who get wrapped around the axle about pay for elected officials, but I think most voters are going to have a hard time seeing anything out of line with what Stenehjem is getting paid.
The other issue Burgum brought up is the increase in Stenehjem’s office budget. So let’s take a look at that too.
I’ve obtained a budget document from Legislative Council (see below) detailing the ways in which lawmakers increased the budget for the Attorney General’s office. Burgum is definitely right about one thing, the budget has grown significantly.
By 42.4 percent from the last biennium to the current one:
So how was this more than $16.4 million increase in the Attorney General’s budget spent? For one thing, not all of it was necessarily new spending. More than half of that increase – over 52 percent – was existing spending transferred into the AG’s budget.
Over $5.06 million was a transfer of the criminal justice information sharing system from the state Information Technology Department to the AG’s budget.
Over $3.51 million was a transfer of the North Dakota University System’s attorneys and their staff into the AG’s budget.
Again, this isn’t necessarily new spending so much as a shift in spending. If we subtract these spending shifts from the $16.475 million increase in the AG’s budget we’re left with just over $7.8 million.
But of that figure, about 49 percent (or about $3.88 million) was funding for new Bureau of Criminal Investigation personnel including new criminal investigators, analysts, and attorneys. Another roughly 20 percent, or over $1.5 million, was funding for staff handling concealed weapons permits, criminal background checks, and for vehicles for BCI staff.
Given that North Dakota has seen a sharp rise in population, and thus demand for law enforcement and other services provided by the AG’s office, it’s sort of hard to argue against this spending.
I’d be interested in hearing what, specifically, of this spending Burgum objects to. Was he opposed more BCI agents and their equipment? Is he upset that the AG’s office hired more staff to handle concealed weapons permit requests which have spiked in recent years leading to delays?
The remaining roughly $2.4 million of spending increase went to routine raises for staff, increases in health benefits costs, etc.
Unless there’s something I’m missing, I don’t see a lot to object to in the increases in the AG’s office budget.
But feel free to take a look for yourself:
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