BISMARCK — North Dakota House members never met as a full body in the 2019 legislative session, and 85 senators and representatives missed at least one day of the 76-day period but still were paid.
Pay to lawmakers with excused absences totaled about $56,000, according to figures The Bismarck Tribune requested from the Legislative Council, the Legislature’s nonpartisan agency of fiscal and legal experts. North Dakota's Legislature meets for up to 80 days every two years.
Legislative leaders say that in general they're not concerned by absences in the recent session, but at least one lawmaker expressed surprise at the practice of paying absent members and another said there's at least the potential for abuse.
Lawmakers were paid $495 per month plus $177 per day, including weekends, from convening Jan. 3 to adjourning April 26. Legislative session pay totaled almost $3.05 million to North Dakota's 141 lawmakers, who raised their monthly pay to $505 and their daily pay to $181 effective July 1. Daily pay goes to $186 in 2020.
State law provides that each lawmaker “is entitled” to that pay for calendar days during organizational, special and regular legislative sessions and interim committee meetings. They also are "entitled" to receive travel and lodging reimbursements.
'We need them in there'
Legislative leaders say lawmakers do more than attend daily floor sessions and committee meetings during the legislative session. They pointed to time spent attending weekend forums and conferences, responding to constituents and traveling to Bismarck.
"It is a seven-day-a-week job," said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson. "I do not have any qualms about being paid the full seven days of the week."
He and House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said lawmakers let them know when they will be gone, usually for a funeral or due to illness.
At least one representative was always absent from the 94-member House during the recent session, with as many as nine gone during one floor session, according to Legislative Council's tally. Pollert said each lawmaker is responsible for his or her time management.
"They're the ones that have to go home and explain to their voters if they're gone for a long absence," Pollert said.
The 47-member Senate frequently met as a full body but had five senators out for one floor session. Wardner said even two senators being gone bothers him. He and Pollert said they've held bills if an absent lawmaker has indicated a desire to vote on it.
But Wardner also said he expects full attendance at committee meetings.
"It doesn't matter what party they're from, we need them in there to work," he said.
Lawmakers record their presence on tally boards in their respective chambers before debating bills in their daily floor sessions. Floor leaders afterward ask to excuse the absent members, and lawmakers swiftly approve the request on a voice vote.
Seventy lawmakers missed one to four days of the 76-day legislative session, according to Legislative Council's tally. Five lawmakers missed more than 10 legislative days. They were:
- Rep. Dick Anderson, R-Willow City, who missed 11 days due to hip surgery. He was paid $1,947 for those days.
- Rep. Dwight Kiefert, R-Valley City, who missed 19 days mostly due to cancer treatment, and is now recovered. He was paid $3,363.
- Rep. Emily O’Brien, R-Grand Forks, who missed 51 days, largely due to doctor appointments, the birth and care of her daughter and related health issues. She was paid $9,027.
- Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, who underwent back surgery and missed 14 days. He was paid $2,618. Weisz earned an extra $10 a day as a committee chairman.
- Former Sen. Arne Osland, R-Mayville, who missed 16 days, mostly due to recovery from a stroke, which later led him to resign. He was paid $2,832.
"I'd love to have perfect attendance every day," Pollert said. "There's certain circumstances and health things that happen and normal things like childbirth that happen."
O’Brien, who is at least the second lawmaker to give birth during a session, said she kept updated with the session by watching live floor session videos and communicating with her fellow lawmakers about bills. She said she had planned to return to Bismarck after her daughter's birth but experienced subsequent health issues.
O'Brien said she might now consider how to return or donate the pay from her absent days.
"I just have to figure out, explore that with (Legislative) Council and see how that process works," said O'Brien, who added she'd like to see the 2021 Legislature "look into" parental leave for lawmakers, some of whom have young families. Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, missed two days this session related to his son's birth.
"How do we make sure that we're providing a healthy living environment and also working environment for these young people that are serving?" said O'Brien, who indicated she'll seek re-election in 2020.
'They are accountable'
First-term Rep. Matt Eidson, D-Grand Forks, said he was surprised to learn he could be paid for the day in February he planned to be gone for a funeral. He thinks lawmakers should discuss their counterparts’ absences when excusing them to receive pay, but added that some are understandable, such as O'Brien's circumstances.
"I don't think it should be a quick vote at the end," said Eidson, who was troubled and caught off guard by the $177 he received for his absent day, which he considered refusing or donating but didn't know how to go about doing.
House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said he didn't notice "any flagrant abuses of being gone" in the 2019 session. He, Pollert, Wardner and Legislative Council Director John Bjornson, the Legislature's top lawyer, each said they're unaware of any unexcused absences in the recent session.
But Boschee also said he can see "opportunities for abuses" in the current absence practice, which he added could be a better process. Some lawmakers early in the session would take Friday off to go home early if they didn't have a morning committee meeting, he said.
About a third of all absences in the 2019 legislative session were on Fridays, according to a Tribune analysis of Legislative Council's figures.
"But if they're speaking at a forum or a conference or if they have a medical thing or a family thing, those things come up," Boschee said. "We want to make sure people are still able to serve and hold onto those commitments as well."
Wardner also said legislative leaders would quickly address any extreme or frivolous absences if they arose.
"They were elected, they're adult people and they're there for a reason," he said. "They are accountable to the voters, absolutely."