Tuesday, April 18, 2023 - 11:30 am

Gov. Doug Burgum today signed “Back the Blue” legislation enhancing retirement benefits for law enforcement and providing $3.5 million to help local agencies with workforce recruitment and retention, the latest in a string of bills designed to support active and retired peace officers in North Dakota and keep communities safe.

“In this time of extremely intense competition for workers in all fields … law enforcement is facing the same or tougher challenges as most professions when it comes to recruiting and retention,” Burgum said during a signing ceremony at the Capitol, noting North Dakota has an estimated 35,000 job openings and the nation’s lowest unemployment rate at 2.1%. “Our local law enforcement agencies work hard to keep our streets and neighborhoods safe, and they do that with our full support. House Bill 1307 demonstrates that ‘Back the Blue’ isn’t just a slogan in North Dakota. It’s actually the respect that we have and a way of life for North Dakotans.”

The $3.5 million appropriated through House Bill 1307 can be used for providing hiring and retention bonuses to new and current officers, including correctional officers, and for providing tuition and fee payments on behalf of law enforcement trainees. At least $750,000 of the $3.5 million must be granted to local law enforcement agencies with 10 or fewer employees working in a law enforcement capacity. Funding will be distributed to city and county agencies based on their number of licensed peace officers and corrections officers.

The prime sponsor of HB 1307, Rep. Shannon Roers Jones of Fargo, said the hope is that the legislation will help police chiefs and sheriffs attract and retain more officers. The bill passed the House unanimously and the Senate 42-5.

“We have an amazing environment here in North Dakota. We have a wonderful safe community atmosphere, and that’s one of the best features about our state,” Roers Jones said. “We want to make sure that we are supporting our law enforcement officers because they are so essential to creating and maintaining that environment.”

Burgum today also signed HB 1183, which moves peace officers employed by the state to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) retirement plan. The bill ensures the state’s game wardens, park rangers and parole and probation officers are on a level playing field when it comes to retirement benefits. More than 160 sworn law enforcement officers will be added to the plan.

Rep. Todd Porter of Mandan, the prime sponsor of HB 1183 and a paramedic, said the issue of retirement, retainment and recruitment became clear during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests as he worked with many law enforcement agencies from inside and outside of North Dakota.

“When you looked at them, you saw people who were willing to risk their lives for you. What you didn’t see was that they were all working inside of a system that treated them differently,” Porter said. “And so, I took it upon myself and worked with a bunch of different folks to try to equalize that playing field and make sure that we treat all of our law enforcement the same.”

Speakers at today’s press conference also highlighted two additional bills signed by Burgum last week that support law enforcement officers.

Senate Bill 2147 exempts law enforcement retirement pay from state income tax – similar to how a bill passed in 2021 exempts military retirement pay – making North Dakota more competitive with other states for peace officers considering where to work and spend their retirement years. 

“I just want to thank you for what you do, that thin blue line, that line of safety between law-abiding citizens and those that would do them harm. You show up every day,” said Sen. Diane Larson of Bismarck, prime sponsor of SB 2147. “North Dakota does respect and value the job that you’re doing. Don’t ever doubt it.”

House Bill 1309, introduced by House Minority Leader Josh Boschee of Fargo on behalf of the BCI, makes adjustments to the retirement benefits for BCI agents with the goal of allowing them to retire closer to age 55, helping the agency recruit and retain the best and brightest in law enforcement and ensure appropriate succession planning.

Attorney General Drew Wrigley, who oversees the BCI as the state’s top law enforcement officer, said he looks forward to continuing the discussion on other legislation related to law enforcement still pending before the Legislature.

“North Dakota does back the blue,” Wrigley said, adding, “This is an excellent, excellent grouping of legislation here today.”

Mandan Police Chief Jason Ziegler, current president of the Chiefs of Police Association of North Dakota, thanked the governor, lawmakers and all who supported all the legislation backing the law enforcement profession.

“We don’t experience what other states experience. We are experiencing a shortage of law enforcement officers in our profession, but we aren’t ostracized as a profession,” Ziegler said. “The message that’s being sent out today is, ‘Come be a law enforcement officer in North Dakota, because we want you here.’”

Video of the signing ceremony and remarks can be viewed on the governor’s Facebook page.