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Our view: After biennium without, best to pursue raises

Even the state Legislature is struggling with North Dakota's competitive labor market. When Sen. Ray Holmberg visited recently with the Herald's editorial board to discuss the proposed budget for the coming biennium, he told us how a valued state employee at the Legislative Council was lost to a higher-paying job.

"We lost our receptionist, and she was very good," Holmberg said. "She got five bucks an hour more at another company."

That's bound to happen in a state like North Dakota, where private companies are desperate for workers to fill thousands of jobs, and as state workers could potentially go years without pay raises because of biennium-based budgets.

Generally speaking, we are against across-the-board raises and prefer salary increases based on merit and performance. We also don't believe raises should come when there simply is no money for them. To give raises in times of an economic downturn is poor management and just plain bad government.

But this year — at least pertaining to North Dakota state government — it's a good idea to holster those traditional objections for the sake of maintaining stability within the government workforce.

Unemployment in North Dakota generally hovers a little north of 2 percent. Since Job Service North Dakota reported earlier this summer there are about 14,000 unfilled jobs in the state, a 2 percent unemployment rate actually is probably closer to zero, since anyone who really wants to work can find a job.

Even the number of unfilled jobs is under debate; Gov. Doug Burgum this summer said it could be as many as 25,000. It's creating a dog-eat-dog recruiting approach as companies search to find workers. And to find workers, private companies are dipping into the government talent pool.

We mentioned the receptionist at the Legislative Council. Here's another example: North Dakota sends prospective new state troopers through training, but then watches as other agencies — such as sheriff's departments and city police departments — lure the young, promising officers away with higher pay.

It's important, then, that the Legislature push to get raises for state workers for the upcoming biennium. At present, raises are not in the proposed budget. Holmberg said it likely will be suggested, however.

A 2 percent raise for employees at the state level seems appropriate, especially since state employees did not see a pay raise in the last biennium. That was just the first time it happened since the 1980s. A 2 percent raise for each year of the biennium would cost $33 million in the general fund.

Again, raises shouldn't be expected every single year, and especially when the economy cannot realistically accommodate them. But failing again to give raises puts North Dakota at risk of losing valuable state employees in what might be the state's most competitive job market era.

Still, we maintain that merit- or skill-based pay increases are a better strategy in general. For example, extra pay for teachers in high demand — those who teach science and math, for instance — is a reform that some states have employed, and we like the idea.

It makes for a good debate, but probably one for another time given the competitiveness of North Dakota's job market.