In North Dakota’s red hot gubernatorial primary race between Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Fargo businessman Doug Burgum, the latter has criticized the former for growth in the size of his department’s budget. And it has grown, by more than 42 percent from the last biennium to the current one.
One defense of that growth was that the AG’s budget saw more funding to hire new personnel, including new BCI agents and staff to handle an increased number of concealed carry permit applications. But despite an increase in funding, the AG’s office has fallen behind in processing concealed carry permit applications once again.
State law require that the AG’s office process properly completed applications within 60 days. I called Fargo concealed carry permit instructor Craig Roe yesterday and asked him if the state was hitting that target.
“Not even close. It’s 90 plus,” he told me. “I get a lot of calls from students wondering about it. Right now it looks like the last couple of weeks, the people who were in my February classes are just starting to get their permits.”
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]I called Fargo concealed carry permit instructor Craig Roe yesterday and asked him if the state was hitting that target. “Not even close. It’s 90 plus,” he told me.[/mks_pullquote]
Roe told me that he thought part of the problem was that the AG’s office has more applications than they can deal with in a timely manner. “I understand it to a point, but I don’t see anybody doing anything about it,” he said. “Something should be done because state law requires it within 60 days.”
These delays in processing permits have been an on-again, off-again problem for years. “In 2013, North Dakota received so many applications for handgun permits, the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation couldn’t meet its deadline of approving or denying applications within 60 days of receiving them,” Forum News Service reporter Archie Ingersoll wrote back in January, noting at that time the AG’s office was again meeting the 60 day window.
But since then they’ve fallen behind again, despite the Legislature having approved two new full time positions in the AG’s office, at a cost of more than $261,000 for the biennium, to specifically process these applications.
“This is very relevant to the campaign because at a time when we’re having this billion dollar budget shortfall but we’ve still got demand for services going up in a lot of parts of the state,” Burgum told me when I reached out to him about this issue. “One thing the new governor is going to have to do is process improvement.”
“We are in excess of 90 days at present,” Deputy Attorney General Tom Trenbeath told me yesterday.
I had contacted AG’s office spokeswoman Liz Brocker for information about this issue shortly after 8:00am on Thursday last week. She told me later that day Stenehjem himself would be contacting me to discuss the issue and provide information, but I didn’t get a call from Trenbeath until yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon and only then after I told Stenehjem’s campaign I was going to write a story whether I talked to their candidate or not.
Trenbeath said that the problem with the delays is that the AG’s office sees surges in applications, usually related to certain events. He attributed the current surge to Minnesota deciding to work with North Dakota on reciprocity.
“One thing that has affected this is that Minnesota has, wisely I think, decided to recognize our licenses,” he told me. “A lot of people are now coming our way instead of going to Utah.”
But Burgum didn’t accept surges in applications as an excuse. “Taking nothing away from hard working state employee, because your charts do show there is peak demand, but in the private sector there is plenty of examples of where this happens,” he said. “Whether those are peak shopping days or peak support days, you have to figure out a way to build systems that accommodate the peak. Flows don’t happen uniformly in any business. There are thousands of companies that have figured out how to address peaks and flows. You figure out how to deal with it.”
Trenbeath is right that the number of applications has been something of a roller coaster. Here are the number of applications, for both new permits and renewals, going back to 2008. The 2016 number is through May 25, and you’ll notice that already it’s nearly at the total 2015 number:
Here’s the trend line for roughly the last year. August of 2015 is when Minnesota granted reciprocity with North Dakota’s permits. Again, the May number is through the 25th.
“You can’t staff for the peaks, you staff for the mean,” Trenbeath told me when I asked why the AG’s office isn’t prepared for these surges despite getting more funding from the Legislature. “If we staffed for 1,600 per month we’d be criticized for having people twiddling their thumbs during the down time,” he said.
“It would be nice if it was a fixed target and we could hit that and move on but it keeps moving on us,” he added.
I asked Trenbeath why the AG’s office can’t follow the law requiring the processing of these permits within 60 days when a gun owner, violating some technicality of the often arcane carry laws, could be charged with a crime. “It’s not a criminal mandate,” he said of the 60 day window. “It is a legal mandate. Something that we do the best we can to handle.”
Burgum said the government needs to treat taxpayers like a customer.
“This is something we have to do across all government services,” he said. “Again, if you’ve got a career politician versus a business leader…career politicians in some cases it seems like we’re doing less with more. We’ve got to figure out how to do more with less.”
“In the private sector customers can go somewhere else. In this instance there’s only one place you can go to get a concealed carry permit,” he added.
UPDATE: This post has been updated with a responses from Burgum.