Sanford Got Caught With Their Hand in the Cookie Jar

Legislative leaders, university officials, and Sanford executives meet over a controversial deal over a nursing school while students and members of the media look on. Photo via John Hageman

Yesterday we had a bit of a political conflagration caused by NDSU President Dean Bresciani who claimed state lawmakers were trying to close a nursing program in Bismarck.

Students at the school, understandably alarmed, organized a protest and showed up at the capitol en masse to weigh in.

The truth, which Bresciani may have been trying to distract from with a strategic bit of alarmism, is that lawmakers were taking aim at a sweetheart deal Bresciani and the State Board of Higher Education approved for health care industry giant Sanford.

There was a meeting at the capitol yesterday between Sanford, NDSU officials, and legislative leaders. What we learn from that meeting, per this report the Bismarck Tribune, is that Bresciani and and the SBHE let Sanford stick their hand in the cookie jar.

The nursing program was previously operated by Sanford. In 2014 the State Board of Higher Education approved NDSU taking over the program (with Bresciani specifically arguing against letting lawmakers weigh in on the deal).

It was a terrible transaction for North Dakota taxpayers. Sanford got to dump a program which loses about $1 million annually on the taxpayers while maintaining priority access to graduates from the program (page 16, section 13) and keeping their corporate branding on the school.

Oh, and did I mention that North Dakota taxpayers also get to pay rent to Sanford for the program’s facility for the privilege of training their nurses for them? That adds up to about $387,000 per year.

This interaction between House Majority Leader Al Carlson (R-Fargo) and a Sanford executive, from the Tribune article about yesterday’s meeting, is particularly telling:

Carlson at one point asked Lambrecht whether the program’s cash flow was positive or negative when Sanford operated the program.

“Losing about $1 million per year,” said Lambrecht, adding that, despite the loss, Sanford has had positive returns by hiring 40 to 50 nursing students per year among those at the school. “This is an investment. I want every single one of these nurses.”

Carlson begged to differ on Lambrecht’s interpretation of the investment.

“Guess who’s funding this?” Carlson said. “Now we’ve got a lot more expenses.”

North Dakota absolutely has a chronic nursing shortage. That’s something the state should address. But the taxpayers shouldn’t be in the business of investing in the bottom line of a specific company.

State Rep. Bob Martinson, a Republican from Bismarck, offered the amendment to end this deal. He was immediately accused by the usual partisan mouth breathers of wanting to shut down the program because it competes with a nursing program at the University of Mary where his wife works. But it turns out the goal was never to shutter this nursing program but rather to get a better deal for the taxpayers.

A deal which seems in the works. “We will have a deal and save the state a lot of money,” one lawmaker told me last night.

I hope it’s a deal which turns this nursing program into something which serves the entire state, not one company, and saves the taxpayers some money.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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