Today’s Ask Your Government

Dear readers,
Several weeks ago, I reported on the vacation time used by six North Dakota elected officials: the governor, attorney general, insurance commissioner, agriculture commissioner, tax commissioner and superintendent of public instruction.
For space reasons, I limited it to those six. I recently was asked to look at the vacation time of other state officials. I’ll feature three officials this week and the three Public Service commissioners next week.
As I reported earlier, elected officials are free to set their schedules and days off. They do not report annual leave hours or sick leave. I asked these officials the same questions that I asked the others: how much time they took off last year, how much they have taken this year and how they determine how much is appropriate.
Here’s how they responded:
State Auditor Bob Peterson
“I’ve taken 10 days of personal/vacation time this year. No sick time. Last year, it was seven days. No sick time. I don’t have a method. I just use my judgment.”
State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt
How many days did you take off in 2010? Records prior to Aug. 1, 2010, have been purged from the system and are no longer available. Annual leave: 6. Sick leave: 2. Family leave: 5.
How many days have you taken this year? Annual leave: 6 days. Sick leave: 1. Personal leave: 5. This was a political trip to Washington, D.C., paid at my expense.
How do you go about determining how many days off you take each year? Agency workload and board meeting schedules are always taken into consideration when determining vacation time. As a family, we traditionally take time over the Fourth of July and Christmas holidays.
As parents, Chuck and I do our best to be available to help celebrate our sons’ life accomplishments.
Annual leave is days which were taken off during regular business hours. Weekend and evening hours are always part of the job and expected. These weekend and evening commitments would more than make up for the amount of annual leave taken.
If using the state employee’s annual leave calculation, seven years of (service) would be entitled to 15 days of annual leave.
Secretary of State Al Jaeger
“Since statewide elected officials are not allocated a set amount of days for sick leave or vacation leave, I have not tracked my ‘out of the office’ days during my 18-plus years as secretary of state. Most often, my absence is related to office duties and not many ‘full’ days have been for personal reasons.
“Regardless of the cause of my absence, I still maintain daily Monday-Friday contact with my office and do office-related work each day on my laptop. Then, upon my return, I use evenings and weekends to catch up and do what could not be done while absent from the office. It is a tradeoff, which I don’t mind. When I am absent for personal reasons, it is definitely related to family.”
Do you have a question for a North Dakota state government official or agency? Send us your question, and we’ll do our best to find an answer.
E-mail politics@wday.com (Subject: Ask your government).
You may also write to Teri Finneman c/o Forum Communications, Press Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, ND 58505.
Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.

State treasurer wants to see more efficiency in state finances

BISMARCK—North Dakota government agencies have $3 million worth of outstanding state checks, and the state treasurer wants to see this number decline.

State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt recently gave state lawmakers an update on the matter.

Overall, 52 state agencies have more than 10,600 outstanding checks between 90 days and 3 years old that total nearly $3.1 million. (See the agency breakdown here)

Outstanding checks mean the money has not been received by the proper recipient, the recipient did not cash the check or state money has not been properly returned to the appropriate funds, Schmidt said. There is not a breakdown of how many checks fall into the various categories.

The state Tax Department has the largest amount of outstanding checks—5,416 worth $2.1 million—followed by the Department of Human Services with 2,168 checks worth about $351,000. The North Dakota Legislature is at the bottom of the list with two $25 checks outstanding.

Many of the outstanding checks in the Tax Department are due to people not cashing them, said Nathan Bergman, supervisor of the individual income tax section.

“It’s surprising how many people will get checks and just not cash them,” he said.

He estimated a few hundred checks come back as undeliverable. The department has a system in place to try to get money to the rightful owner in these cases, Bergman said.

Department staff search for new addresses and phone numbers and put a note on the resident’s account so—if that person calls the department—there’s a record that a check is due. If the resident files another tax return, the department checks the file for additional contact information.

“We try to do what we can do,” he said.

There is not a way for the public to search online to see if they have an outstanding state check that they lost, never got or haven’t cashed in the past three years. However, Schmidt said a new tax distribution outstanding check system can help state agencies work on their outstanding check lists.

This includes researching the validity of the payment, contacting the recipient to find out why the check remains outstanding, and determining whether a check should be voided and reissued.

The closer to the date of issue the checks are worked, the more likely a resolution is found, Schmidt said. This means more efficient government since less tracking is necessary, and money belonging to the state can be put back to proper use, she said.

A review of the 2011 outstanding check transfer report found the opportunity for increased efficiencies in state check practices is “striking,” Schmidt said. Issuing multiple checks to the same person, letting checks sit and not aggregating amounts for reissue have a dramatic effect on the efficiency of the state, she said.

After three years, remaining outstanding checks are turned over to the state’s Unclaimed Property Division. Next month, the state will turn over nearly 2,300 outstanding checks worth $435,000.

Schmidt, who pushed for the law requiring her office to report the status of outstanding state checks to legislators, said her office is continuing to work to improve the state’s check processes.

“Efficiency. That’s what we’re looking for,” she said. “It saves the taxpayers’ dollars.”

North Dakota Legacy Fund starts growing

BISMARCK–A bank account for North Dakota’s future got a $34 million boost today.

State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt announced she will deposit $34,311,019.74 into the Legacy Fund.  This is the first monthly deposit into the Legacy Fund since its creation by initiated measure in 2010, a news release said. 

Under Article X, Section 26 of the North Dakota Constitution, 30 percent of all state oil revenue derived from oil and gas production and extraction after June 30, 2011, will be deposited into the Legacy Fund.  No principal or earnings of the fund may be spent until after June 30, 2017. Principal expenditures from the Legacy Fund after 2017 require a two-thirds passing vote of the Legislature. 

The Legacy Fund will be invested by the State Investment Board. 

State treasurers gather in Bismarck for annual conference

BISMARCK–State treasurers from across the nation are coming here for a conference that will include discussions of the Bank of North Dakota, state pensions and the economic outlook. 

North Dakota State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt will host the 2011 National Association of State Treasurers conference Saturday through Wednesday. Attendees include 26 state treasurers, their staff  members and  numerous corporate affiliate members, a news release said.

Conference speakers include:

- David Mulford, vice chairman, Credit Suisse International and former ambassador to India

- Narayana Kocherlakota,  president and CEO, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

- Rich Karlgaard, editor-in-chief and publisher, Forbes Magazine

- Eric Hardmeyer, president, Bank of North Dakota 

A complete conference agenda can be found at: www.nast.org/2011annual/agenda.htm

State releases $35 million to non-oil counties

BISMARCK–State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt has handed out $35 million worth of checks to the state’s non-oil producing counties, cities and townships for road projects.

The payment is the first of the $60 million allocated by the 2011 Legislature. The $25 million payout will come next year. (Find the legislation directing this funding on pages 2 and 3 here.)

To find out how much money your area is getting, view this report: Highway report. Here is the township report

Or, you can manually look it up here: go to this link. As an example of how to search, click county. To see the recent results, the payment date begin and end should be 6/13/2011.

Under distribution type, select either 2011 HB 1012 Highway or 2011 HB 1012 Township Road. Then select the county.