Port: Since when is rewarding state employees with a modest merit bonus a bad thing?

Paying out $625,000 in bonuses is expensive, sure, but so is turnover.

The North Dakota State Capitol. Forum News Service file photo

MINOT, N.D. -- Last week, Adam Willis reported about "a record high in bonus payments" to state employees.

Let's begin with some perspective.

The total amount paid in bonuses was $625,000. That's a lot of money, by any measure, but it was spread out over 25 state agencies. No single person got more than $1,500 because that's the law.

As for this being a "record high" for bonuses, remember that the Legislature raised the cap for bonuses from $1,000 to $1,500 during their 2019 session. The Legislature made more money available for performance bonuses, and so the state spent more on bonuses.

What's ironic is the bellyaching now coming from some in the Legislature about this utterly predictable turn of events.


"It's sort of a double unfairness," John Bjornson, head of Legislative Council, told Willis. "One is, it's unfair to the employee... It doesn't help them in the long run as much. And then secondly, other employees question, 'What have they done that I haven't done to deserve this?'"

Since when is it unfair to reward employees who have a particularly good year with a modest bonus?

Also, why wouldn't we want employees questioning why they didn't get a bonus? Doesn't that mean they're motivated to do better next year? Or, perhaps, move on to make room for a new employee who is a better fit?

The private sector uses that sort of incentive all the time. Republicans are fond of talking about running government like a business, and while I would prefer they not since the government is government and not a business, in this specific instance, why are Republicans in favor of salary socialism?

"With all of these things going on, and with all the turmoil going on in the economy and in government and in society, these bonuses just don't have a nice look about them," Senator Ray Holmberg, a Republican from Grand Forks and chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Willis .

One of the great problems with the public sector workforce is that so often pay is uniform, based on things like the longevity of service as opposed to performance. When raises happen, they tend to be across-the-board pay hikes that completely ignore whether or not a specific employee deserves a raise.

The Legislature created this bonus program as a way to reward state employees who do a particularly good job, giving them incentives to stay in those jobs instead of seeking employment elsewhere.

The cost of those bonuses may not be as high as you think it is, either.


Paying out $625,000 in bonuses is expensive, sure, but so is turnover. Hiring and training new people has its own cost. If we can avoid some of those costs by keeping good state employees in their jobs, isn't that a win?

Are these bonuses being given to the right people? Have they been effective in retaining employees? I'd be interested in exploring those questions, but I'm not much interested in a blanket condemnation of this program.

Whatever your opinion about the size of government -- I'm a conservative, I'd certainly like it to be smaller -- the people who work in the government we have should be the best people we can find. Policies like this bonus program help us achieve that.

Let's not embarrass people for using it.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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