ND higher education board says it needs more research on House plan to shift lawyers, auditors

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FARGO, North Dakota — The North Dakota Board of Higher Education said Tuesday it is opposed to several facets of a House budget bill but decided to wait before taking a stance on a proposal to move university system lawyers and auditors under the umbrella of other state agencies.

The position paper approved at the board's regular meeting in Bismarck asks the Legislature to keep a 2-year-old funding formula intact, maintain the authority to set tuition and fees with the board, and fund eight major capital projects. The bill is set to be discussed in the Senate at the end of the month.

Some board members were split on whether they believe the university system should keep control of legal and internal audit services, rather than shifting them to state agencies as the House approved. Some lawmakers cite numerous violations of the state's open meetings and records laws as a need for the change.

Board member Graft Shaft, a lawyer from Grand Forks, suggested that the board stay neutral on the proposal until it can discuss it further. He said there should be a better way to evaluate the legal staff, which typically includes the highest paid positions in the system.

"I don't share a lot of concerns that have been outlined," Shaft said.

One of those concerns, outlined by faculty adviser Eric Murphy, a non-voting board member, is that some of the attorneys could leave the system rather than reapply for their jobs.

"The unintended consequences could be very drastic if this moves forward," Murphy said.

The board tabled the discussion on the lawyers and auditors until its next meeting, when it hopes to have the attorney general and lawmakers talk about the proposed change. The group also agreed to delay its discussion on a tuition model until the Legislature decides whether it's going to take control of setting those rates.

"It's a long process," board member Don Morton said of the higher education legislation. "We still have to go through the Senate where historically higher ed has done better."

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