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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press Writer, Published September 17 2010

Stenehjem blasted for pay raise

BISMARCK – Democratic attorney general candidate Jeanette Boechler said on Thursday that incumbent Republican Wayne Stenehjem “breached the trust” of voters by supporting a 35 percent pay increase for his job in the 2009 Legislature’s final days.

Stenehjem replied that the pay raise, which matches the attorney general’s salary with the pay of North Dakota Supreme Court justices, doesn’t take effect until after the November election and that the Fargo attorney herself may benefit from it.

The increase “is for the job, not the person,” Stenehjem said Thursday. He said Boechler “is as likely to be a recipient of that salary increase as I am.”

North Dakota elected officials have their salaries set by law. The Legislature provided 5 percent pay increases for them this year and last, both effective on July 1, which was in line with general pay increases that legislators approved for state workers.

However, lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Senate and House included two extra pay increases for the attorney general, which will take effect Jan. 1 and July 1.

On Jan. 1, the salary for the office is rising from $96,304 to $113,266, a 17.6 percent boost. On July 1, it will jump again by 15 percent, to $130,228.

The Senate Appropriations Committee suggested the increase after finding that the attorney general is one of the lower-paid lawyers in state government. In March 2009, 76 state government lawyers made more than the attorney general, including two lawyers within Stenehjem’s own office, committee budget records show.

The roster of better-paid lawyers includes state district judges, who are paid at least $119,330; North Dakota’s Supreme Court justices, who make $130,228 annually; and 13 members of the University of North Dakota’s law school faculty, whose pay during March 2009 ranged from $102,900 to $218,488.

The attorney general’s raise was included in the budget bill for his agency, which the North Dakota Senate endorsed unanimously after holding a separate vote on the pay-raise provision. It was approved 43-4.

North Dakota House members initially balked at the pay increase. Among its critics were the Republican majority leader, Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, and Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, who was chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that reviewed the attorney general’s office budget.

On May 4, 2009, the session’s final day, House members initially voted 48-46 to reject a version of the budget that included the pay provision. Later that day, however, lawmakers had a change of heart and voted 77-16 to accept it.

Boechler asserted that Stenehjem and his chief deputy, Tom Trenbeath, lobbied heavily for the pay increase during the Legislature’s final days. Stenehjem’s conduct was a “breach of trust,” “nothing less than shameful,” and “unbecoming and selfish,” Boechler said in her statement.

“Mr. Stenehjem took cynical advantage of members of the (Legislature), conduct which makes Mr. Stenehjem seriously unsuited for election to a fourth term of office this November,” her statement said.

Stenehjem said he and Trenbeath were monitoring the spending bill’s progress but were not paying particular attention to the pay increase. Stenehjem said he had insisted it not take effect until after the November 2010 election because the increase was “not for a person, it was for a position.”

“We had lots of other issues we were working on in our budget,” Stenehjem said. “I never sent (Trenbeath) out and said, ‘Make this (pay raise) happen.’ ”

It is common in the closing days of the Legislature for top state agency officials to roam the Capitol’s west wing, keeping track of their departments’ budget bills.

“To suggest that lots of people were offended or something like that is really silly and really just comes from someone who doesn’t know anything about how the Legislature actually works and what responsibilities there are in getting a budget passed,” said Stenehjem, who is a former state senator.

Boechler did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages from The Associated Press seeking elaboration on her statement.


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