- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Several North Dakota agency officials and the union representing state workers are opposing a Republican-sponsored bill that would prevent filling any vacant state government jobs until the end of April.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner and their fellow GOP leaders of the appropriations committees are pushing the legislation amid a downturn in oil and agriculture prices. Carlson told the House Appropriation Committee on Tuesday that filling any vacant position can wait until officials have a better idea of what revenue will look like for the next two-year budget cycle.

“People are going to have to suck it up a little bit,” Carlson said.

The comments drew a sharp rebuke from North Dakota United President Nick Archuleta, whose union represents more than 11,500 public employees, from kindergarten teachers to snowplow drivers.

“There seems to be a prevailing and disturbing belief in these halls that fewer public employees will be able to deliver the same great service that the public has rightfully come to expect,” Archuleta said. “That belief is misplaced, misguided and misinformed.”

And Gov. Doug Burgum said in an interview he does not support a hiring moratorium through April, because there are critical positions left open, including those in law enforcement and corrections.

“It’s never a good idea to freeze,” he said.

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation director Leann Bertsch told the committee that turnover is high in the prison system and a hiring freeze will result in increased overtime and other costs. She added that the agency is “going to have a hell of a lot of vacancies” until the freeze is lifted.

There are about 525 unfilled positions within the 80 or so state agencies, Carson said. The average monthly salary and benefits for each employee is about $6,800, which would save the state about $3.5 million a month.

Officials from some state agencies, including the top budget writer, reminded the budget-crafting committee that a shortfall of about $1.4 billion during the current two-year cycle was addressed in part by massive cuts to most government agencies.

Burgum’s newly released budget plan calls for eliminating more than 630 full-time positions in state government, for state employees to pay 5 percent on their health insurance and no raises over the next two years.

Archuleta said if Burgum’s budget is adopted, “we will see a steady stream of knowledgeable and dedicated public servants head for the exits.”

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