Higher education board adjourns without taking action on budget bill in North Dakota House


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FARGO, North Dakota — The North Dakota Board of Higher Education spent a couple of hours Thursday listening to college presidents criticize a House budget bill but adjourned the monthly meeting before deciding whether to take a stand on the legislation.

The board discussed a so-called position paper suggested by university system officials that would ask legislators to fund certain capital projects left out of the budget. It also asks that the board retain the authority to set tuition and fees "as has been done for most of the past 100 years." It also would ask that the board keep control of legal and internal audit services, rather than shifting them to state agencies as the House approved.

Board vice chair Kathleen Neset, who was running the meeting in the absence of chair Terry Hjelmstad, called for a 10-minute break at about 6:20 p.m., before the board was scheduled to discuss whether to take any action on legislation. The board came back 25 minutes later and tabled the rest of its agenda for a later date.

The meeting in Bismarck, which started at 2 p.m., focused mostly on complaints from college presidents, who said the House budget proposal would result in a high turnover of employees and substantial cuts to academic programs. One president called the impacts "devastating" and another called them "extreme."

"I refuse to call what the House gave us a funding formula," North Dakota State College of Science President John Richman said. "It's a political statement."

Fargo Sen. Tim Flakoll, chair of the Senate Education Committee, told board members that it's important they have "more intentional dialogue" with lawmakers. He urged them to be patient with the current legislation, which he declined to talk about specifically.

"As we move forward some of these things tend to be massaged and work their way out," he said.

Said board member Don Morton: "We still have a long ways to go. Let's not overreact."

Larry Skogen, the acting chancellor who will eventually return to his job as Bismarck State College president, said the higher education bill that passed the House is scheduled to be taken up by the Senate on March 23, which will follow updated budget projections. Many initiatives have been in a limbo since a drop in oil prices resulted in a downward budget forecast at the start of the session.

"We all know that if those projections are low, all state agencies will be taking in their fair share of the pain relative to tightening the belt," Skogen said. "If projections turn around, it would be a very different conversation we would be having."

Board members had mixed feelings on a proposal to transfer legal and audit services from the university system to other state agencies. Board member Grant Shaft, a lawyer from Grand Forks, said a committee five years ago looked into the way legal services were being handled at the campuses and there was some sentiment for change.

"Quite frankly, at the end, although we didn't take that final step, we found signifcant merit to taking those services to the umbrella of attorney general's office," Shaft said.

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