Burgum Needs to Give up on Declining His Salary

Gov. Doug Burgum delivers his State of the State Address in front of a joint session of the 66th legislature on Thursday afternoon in the house chamber of the capitol. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

I hate that our politicians, exploiting the populist mores of the electorate, are making a spectacle out of declining their salaries.

It’s not just the government shutdown playing out at the national level, part of which has included politicians (including North Dakota’s Senator John Hoeven and Rep. Kelly Armstrong, though not Senator Kevin Cramer) donating their salaries in solidarity with federal workers who are out of work. It’s also politicians like Governor Doug Burgum, who made a campaign promise during his successful run in 2016 to refuse his salary.

This is supposed to illustrate to us how down-to-earth, compassionate, and fiscally conservative these people are.

All it tells me is they’re a bunch of rich people for whom political power is compensation enough. Which, seen from that perspective, is not a good look.

Think of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York who has made national headlines as a candidate of modest means who defeated an establishment candidate. After winning, she talked about her inability to afford housing in Washington D.C. 

Burgum fought with lawmakers over turning down his salary during the 2017 session, and now he’s at it again in the 2019 session.

What a stupid, stupid waste of time. “That’s the public policy sadness to me, that it’s misdirected intellectual energy,” state Senator Tim Mathern (D-Fargo) told the Bismarck Tribune’s Jack Dura.

He’s right.

If Burgum doesn’t want his salary he should donate it in some fashion he finds appropriate, but the Legislature should absolutely appropriate a salary for the governor, and Burgum should accept that salary.

This isn’t a trivial matter.

For one thing, what would happen if (heaven forbid) Governor Burgum were to die or become incapacitated while in office? His successor would be stuck working for free, unless the Legislature re-convened to fix the salary. It’s worth noting that Lt. Governor Brent Sanford is accepting his salary. If he moved up, though, he’d leave that salary behind and have to accept whatever this Legislature appropriates.

For another, do we really want to create an expectation that politicians work for free? Because it would follow, then, that only wealthy people who can afford to forgo a salary could run for office.

Think of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York who has made national headlines as a candidate of modest means who defeated an establishment candidate. After winning, she talked about her inability to afford housing in Washington D.C. During this shutdown, even as she has called on other politicians to decline their salaries, she’s refused to say whether she’s keeping hers. Which probably means she’s still taking her salary.

Probably because she needs it. Which is fine! I find her politics obnoxious, but the voters in her district chose her, and thankfully she can afford to serve in office because she gets a salary.

It’s fashionable to hate on politicians, but serving in public office is a demanding job. Paying the people who do that job makes sense (even if they often do things we don’t like). It especially makes sense when you consider that the pay makes it possible for people who aren’t wealthy to seek office.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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