Controversy Over Pay for Absent Legislators Is Much Ado About Not Much


If you wanted to be critical of North Dakota lawmakers for rubber stamping pay for colleagues who are absent during the legislative session I think that’s probably valid. Anyone who watches the floor sessions of the Legislature can see how routine the votes are to excuse absences and thus authorize pay.

But you have to remember, our Legislature operates a very tight ship already. Unlike most other states, our lawmakers are part time. Outside of lawmakers in leadership positions, they don’t have any staff or a budget for constituent services. They meet only every other year. Plus, they are tasked with handling hundreds upon hundreds of bills during a regular session that is constrained by the state constitution to no more than 80 days.

How much time do they really have to go investigating whether or not the absence of another lawmaker is justified?

Besides, if Bismarck Tribune reporter Jack Dura’s very excellent article about pay for absent lawmakers reveals anything, it’s that a) the absences really aren’t costing the state much and b) they mostly seem justified.

Dura found that absent lawmakers collected about $56,000 in pay (legislature pay for the entire 2019 session cost taxpayers just north of $3 million, to put that into perspective). Of that total a little more than third went to five lawmakers who missed more than 10 legislative days.

Per Dura, they were out because of back and hip surgery, a stroke, cancer, and pregnancy:

I know it’s not a fashionable thing to say in these days where populist rage is en vogue, but politicians are human beings too. Sometimes life happens.

Also, let’s not forget that serving in the state Legislature does not exactly earn you a financial windfall. For this last session lawmakers were paid $495 per month, plus $177 per legislative day while in session. Leadership and committee chairs earn a bit more, and of course there are things like expenses too, but for that total these lawmakers are expected to take months off from their lives and careers to serve. Not just during the work week, and not just during the legislative session. They are expected to attend community meetings and events back home in their legislative districts. They are expected to meet with and respond to constituents.

Some of our legislative districts are enormous, too. Case in point, state Rep. Keith Kempenich and two other lawmakers serve District 39 in the far western part of the state. Which means they not only have to commute from there to Bismarck regularly for the legislative session and interim committee meetings, they also have to attend to constituents living in a land area roughly the size of Connecticut.

All, again, with no staff and no budget for constituent services.

As of July 1 legislative pay $505 per month and $181 per legislative day.

That’s still a pittance give the amount of time serving in this office requires.

If we want serving in the Legislature to be something that’s accessible to a faction of citizens beyond the wealthy and retired we ought to quit quibbling about excused absences and perhaps think about giving our lawmakers some more resources. Including increased pay.

I’m glad Dura reported this information. It’s something voters should be aware of. But it sure doesn’t seem like this is something that’s being abused.