BISMARCK — The North Dakota state government gave out a record high in bonus payments to its employees this year, even as Gov. Doug Burgum instructed agencies to tighten budgets in other areas to keep operations afloat during the recession.

State agencies paid out more than $625,000 through a "performance bonus" program over the recently-ended fiscal year to a select fraction of state employees, according to records obtained by Forum News Service. The total bonus payments, originally reported by The Associated Press, included payments of $20,000 more than last year.

The bonuses are part of a merit-based program that dates back 20 years. Individual agencies are given discretion over whether to participate in the program and who to reward. Many agencies swear by it, but others see it as unfair.

Office of Management and Budget Director Joe Morrissette defended the bonus program in an interview. "If this retains a single employee, it's probably paid for itself," he said. And while the latest bonus payments were the largest in the program's history, Morrissette noted that this was an expected bump since the state Legislature raised the individual bonus cap from $1,000 to $1,500 during the 2019 session.

Morrissette also argued that "it's a little bit of an unfortunate twist" to tie these bonuses to the coming legislative biennium. "Our biggest budget issue is really looming for next biennium," he said, and added that "these bonuses don't have any impact on that."

Among the offices that distributed bonus payments this year were the Office of Management and Budget, which gave 48; Workforce Safety & Insurance, which gave 83; the Department of Transportation, which gave 97; and the governor's office, which gave only three.

A total of 25 agencies participated in the program this year, rewarding 6% of the state's more than 9,100 employees, according to The Associated Press. But some state agencies have chosen not to adopt the program out of concern for its fairness.

"We want the salary to reflect that they're important to us. That's just the way to do it," said John Bjornson, an attorney for the Legislature and the head of the state's nonpartisan Legislative Council, whose office does not use the program.

"It's sort of a double unfairness," Bjornson said. "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?'"

Senate Appropriations Chairman Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, also argued for raising salaries over distributing bonuses and noted that the bonus program comes with optics issues in the middle of a recession. "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," he said.

Mike Nowatzki, Burgum's spokesman, who received one of the bonuses, was straightforward in his defense of the program. "It's a tool that's authorized by the Legislature and made available to state agency managers to reward and retain high-performing state employees," he said, adding that in some cases, as with the governor's office, bonuses were distributed long before the start of the pandemic.

The state Legislature is heading toward a crucial session at the beginning of next year, and budgets will be unusually tight. Holmberg suggested that, this time around, the bonus program could be on the chopping block.

"The Legislature is going to be looking at all of the places where money is spent," he said.

Readers can reach Forum News Service reporter Adam Willis, a Report For America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.