Tough details to resolve on N.D. state employee payFor now, North Dakota lawmakers are backing 5 percent raises for state employees. But pay differences between the House and Senate are contentious enough to give legislative negotiators plenty of work in the 2009 session’s closing days.
By: By Dale Wetzel, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK — For now, North Dakota lawmakers are backing 5 percent raises for state employees. But pay differences between the House and Senate are contentious enough to give legislative negotiators plenty of work in the 2009 session’s closing days.
The principal sticking point is Gov. John Hoeven’s proposed $24 million “equity pool” for state workers, which he included in agency budgets along with money to provide general pay increases for each of the next two years.
“None of the budgets will fold until we decide where that’s going to be, how we’re going to handle the equity pay,” said Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the House majority leader.
The money is intended to give state government managers the ability to resolve an assortment of pay issues. It can be used to sweeten salaries when it is difficult to attract applicants for jobs, and to remedy wage differences among similar positions in state agencies.
State senators have supported Hoeven’s compensation plan as they worked through state agency spending bills. The House, while backing the governor’s wish for 5 percent annual pay increases, has stripped out the equity funds.
Carlson instead favors establishing a $12 million pot of equity cash with a requirement that departments show that selected jobs are important enough to qualify for a share of it.
“Our intention was to put a chunk of that money back in ... for those mission-critical positions,” Carlson said. “Instead of giving some to everybody, we believe it’s better handled looking at the overall pay system.”
House and Senate talks on the issue have not yet begun in earnest, and legislators on both sides say they could get heated.
“This is something Al Carlson is very adamant about. But, then again, we’ve all been adamant about things. We don’t always get our way,” said Sen. Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, the Senate majority leader. “I’m adamant about a few things, myself.”
Gary Feist, president of the North Dakota Public Employees Association, called the equity money “a major component of the compensation package” for North Dakota government workers.
“The equity pools will enable the state to reward its quality, long-term employees, while also enhancing its ability to recruit and retain new hires,” Feist said in a statement distributed to association members.
Sen. Raymon Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he was confident senators will resist the House equity approach. He believes House members would reject it themselves if given a chance to vote on the equity issue alone.
Representatives have voted to approve a series of spending bills with the equity plan favored by House Republicans. But Holmberg said they have never been given the option of picking between it and Hoeven’s favored pay package.
“That can be done very easily with a few of the budgets we have, where really the only difference between the Senate and the House is the equity issue,” he said. “If (House members) turn it down, then we have things to negotiate on.”
Carlson said House members have repeatedly reaffirmed their preference on the handling of equity money by their votes on individual budget bills.
“We have voted on the governor’s plan, and we’ve said we don’t like it,” Carlson said. “That’s a nice game that (Holmberg) likes to play — send it back and have us vote on it ... We don’t need any more votes on it. We need (senators) to come around and agree to it.”
In the past six years, equity money has become more prominent in the Legislature’s debates about state employee compensation.
The 2003 Legislature set aside $870,026 for equity pay adjustments even though lawmakers did not provide funds for a general salary increase. The amount increased to $1.7 million two years later.
In 2007, the Legislature’s pay package for state workers included money for 4 percent annual raises and $12.7 million in equity adjustments. This year, Hoeven asked the Legislature for 5 percent pay increases this year and next, and $24.4 million in equity spending.
Previous equity allocations have targeted a handful of state agencies, including the Highway Patrol and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Two years ago, lawmakers approved a general $10 million pool as well as money for a dozen state agencies, including the agriculture commissioner, state auditor, attorney general and the Securities Department. In his proposal to the 2009 Legislature, Hoeven included equity money in most state agency budgets.
Carlson said he doubted every state agency has problems with pay equity.
“Every time the equity pools grow, we don’t seem to be gaining anything,” Carlson said. “We need to take a good, hard look at the system ... When everybody gets (an equity adjustment), you can’t tell me that everybody in this state is way off.”