- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 3, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Outgoing Gov. Jack Dalrymple is defending his decision to pay nearly $100,000 in retention bonuses to five staff members, a move a top Democrat says “doesn’t smell right” and calls a misuse of a state program aimed at recruiting and retaining critical employees for hard-to-fill state jobs.

House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, said the bonus program now likely needs legislative review because “a red flag has been raised.”

Dalrymple, a Republican who has been governor since 2010, announced in August that he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2016. The bonuses were paid out in June, at the end of the current two-year budget cycle, said Ken Purdy, director of the state’s Human Resource Management Services. The bonuses were first reported by KFGO-AM radio, after an open records request.

The governor told The Associated Press that the bonuses were awarded based on merit to members of his staff and cabinet “who are important to the process in governing the state of North Dakota.” The governor said his key staff members are “highly desired” in the private sector and the bonuses were given to keep them.

“These are top-flight people I need to do the job,” Dalrymple said. “I cannot replace them with brand-new people. I need their experience and expertise.”

Democrats sharply criticized the bonuses, saying in a statement they showed abuse of a “well-meaning initiative” meant for “law enforcement officers who keep us safe, the engineers who clean up and prevent spills that threaten our land and water, and those who provide critical services like mental health and addiction counseling in communities across the state.”

Records obtained by the AP show this marks the first time a governor has paid bonuses to staff members since the program was approved by the Legislature in 1999. In the two-year budget cycle that followed, only $20,000 was paid throughout state government.

The records show Dalrymple approved bonuses totaling about $99,824 to members of his staff in 2013-15, including $31,960 to Ron Rauschenberger, his chief of staff. Two policy advisers and the governor’s communication director each got retention bonuses of more than $17,850. The governor’s assistant, who does his scheduling, got more than $10,800, records show.

Dalrymple also awarded retention bonuses to appointed cabinet-level employees, including $30,518 to Pam Sharp, the state’s budget director, and $27,692 to Human Services Director Maggie Anderson.

Onstad, who sits on the Legislature’s Employee Benefits Programs Committee, said the panel was not given specifics on the bonus program. “We never saw a real breakdown on who is getting what,” he said.

Bismarck GOP Sen. Dick Dever, who also sits on the committee, defended the bonuses approved by Dalrymple. Dever said having to hire and train new staff members “would likely have a greater financial impact than providing those bonuses.”

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