- Associated Press - Friday, November 6, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Democratic and Republican legislative leaders have pledged to review a program aimed at recruiting and retaining employees for hard-to-fill state jobs, after outgoing GOP Gov. Jack Dalrymple approved nearly $100,000 in retention bonuses for five of his staffers.

“I wouldn’t have done it but that’s just me,” said Fargo Republican Rep. Al Carlson, the House majority leader. “I think they were excessive.”

Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, was more critical, calling the bonuses “an abuse of a well-intentioned program.”

Records show North Dakota agencies awarded $1.45 million in retention bonuses in 2013-15, along with about $687,000 in recruitment bonuses and about $45,000 in referral bonuses.

Records obtained by The Associated Press show that it was 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 following it being instituted, only $20,000 was paid throughout state government.

Dalrymple’s bonuses, which were paid in June and revealed this week through open records requests, have public employees around the state Capitol and elsewhere grumbling. Dalrymple announced in August that he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2016.

“It’s bad for morale and doesn’t serve the public well at all,” North Dakota United President Nick Archuleta said.

“When a public employee sees an already well-paid person in the ‘inner circle’ getting these bonuses, how would one expect to feel?” said Archuleta, whose union represents more than 11,500 public employees, from kindergarten teachers to snowplow drivers. “This is going to sit in their craw for a while, you can bet.”

Dalrymple, a Republican who has been governor since 2010, said 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.

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 received more than $10,800, records show.

Much of the criticism has been aimed at Rauschenberger, who already brings home a bigger salary than the governor: $158,028 a year, compared to Dalrymple’s $129,091, records show. Rauschenberger has served as an adviser to the state’s governors since 2001, starting with Gov. John Hoeven.

Dalrymple also awarded retention bonuses to appointed cabinet-level employees, including $30,518 to Pam Sharp, the state’s budget director; $27,692 to Human Services Director Maggie Anderson; and $24,450 to Commerce Commissioner Al Anderson.

Documents obtained by the AP show staff members’ bonuses were based on 2.5 months’ salary, and 2 months for cabinet members.

The bonus recipients were required to pay back the money if they quit their jobs within 90 days after receiving it in June. None have. They also must reimburse the state a prorated amount if they leave before Nov. 1, 2016, though terms of that were not immediately disclosed.

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