Statehouse Profiles: North Dakota Sen. Bob Stenehjem
For eighty days every other year, Bob Stenehjem takes an unpaid leave of absence from his job as roads and streets foreman in Bismarck, N.D., to serve in the state Senate.
With 25 years experience in city maintenance, Stenehjem said he’s not your typical state lawmaker, but he is a typical North Dakotan and proud to serve in his state’s citizen legislature.
“I kind of look at myself as a regular, all-around citizen of the state of North Dakota. Being one of the working people of North Dakota I think that has helped me to realize the value of having to pay your taxes and how hard it is to make ends meet,” Stenehjem said.
Stenehjem, the Republican majority leader, has been a senator for 12 years and comes from a politically active family. His younger brother, Wayne, is the state Attorney General and served 25 years in the state legislature. Another brother, Al, served two terms in the state House while his brothers were senators, setting a North Dakota record for the number of siblings simultaneously elected to state office.
But serving in the North Dakota legislature -which is one of the lowest paying, shortest running legislatures in the country – is less than a third-time job, and Stenehjem’s primary occupation is overseeing the upkeep of Bismarck’s streets.
As foreman of the city’s 30-person roads maintenance crew, Stenehjem’s duties include plowing and sanding roads through the state’s harsh winter and paving streets and filling potholes in the summer.
But when he goes to the statehouse every other spring, Stenehjem said his job is to keep the government in check and make it accountable to working families.
In this spring’s legislative session, Stenehjem and other Republican lawmakers bumped heads with Republican Gov. John Hoeven over his proposal to raise cigarette taxes 35 cents from 44 cents a pack, a measure intended to help balance the state budget and fund a pay raise for teachers.
Stenehjem said such a tax unfairly targets working and lower income citizens and he helped defeat the measure.
“I’ve tried to get by with less government and less taxes and tried to think of the working person who’s got to eke out a living and pay for the government,” he said.
North Dakotan lawmakers get $250 a month and $125 per day to cover expenses while the legislature is in session. Stenehjem said it’s not like he’s volunteering, but the cut in pay and the longer work hours while he’s in session mean he’s not making any money in government.
“I certainly enjoy doing this and I wouldn’t want you to take this the wrong way, but you know, there certainly is a sacrifice to serving,” Stenehjem said.
Only nine states (California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) have year-round professional legislatures that pay lawmakers $45,000 or more per year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). In states with true citizen legislatures, like North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Utah, lawmakers are compensated less than $15,000 per session.
A recent survey of state legislators conducted by Stateline.org found that nearly two-thirds of them currently hold jobs other than lawmaking. The most common occupations given were business owner (17 percent) and lawyer (12 percent). The vast majority of legislators are white (90 percent) and men outnumber women three to one.
“(People) always say that there seems to be so many lawyers in the legislature and that’s not true. We have a pretty good cross-section between lawyers and farmers and teachers and doctors and wage earners like myself, which is great because you get a lot of different ideas,” Stenehjem said.
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