Senate Approves Some Tough Budget Medicine For The ND University System

In yet another sign of just how far the North Dakota University System has fallen in the eyes of lawmakers the state Senate today largely backed the House version of HB1003, the university system budget.

SAB readers will remember that when the House passed this budget the reductions in funding growth from Governor Jack Dalrymple’s executive budget, along with some other reforms, set off a five hour hissy fit from university presidents at a meeting of the State Board of Higher Education. The budget approved by the Senate today on an almost unanimous 45-2 vote put some money back, and watered down some of the reforms passed by the House, but it’s hard to imagine that the university system is feeling pleased.

Governor Jack Dalrymple proposed a 19.4 percent increase in university system spending. The Senate today approved a 8.9 percent increase.

You may be wondering why an 8.9 percent increase, which is a substantial hike in spending, is seen as a blow to the university system but you have to remember that the Legislature has been fantastically generous with the universities even as enrollment has largely stagnated. Since the 2005-2007 biennium the average biennium-over-biennium increase in higher education spending has been 24 percent (see the data here on page11)

Falling to only a 8.9 percent increase is quite a change.

Senator Ray Holmberg (R-Grand Forks) noted that the universities do not like this change, arguing that the Legislature is balking on the funding formula it instituted last session, but he said “the funding formula is not a holy relic.”

“It will be tweaked,” he added.

The Senate also walked back some of the House’s other changes.

Where the House version gave the Legislature complete control over tuition, the Senate version only institutes a 2.5 percent cap on tuition costs (including fees) with any increase above that cap needing approval from the Legislature’s Budget Section.

The House had also included a section mandating that the State Board of Higher Education perform full evaluations of the university presidents, but the Senate took that part out.

The Senate is requiring that the university system follow the same rules for severance packages that other state agencies must follow. Meaning no more golden parachutes for chancellors or university presidents leaving the system.

The most contentious reforms to the university system governance were the removal of the system’s auditors and lawyers from the direct oversight of the NDUS. Those auditors and lawyers have been placed in the state auditor’s budget (already approved and awaiting Governor Jack Dalrymple’s signature) and the Attorney General’s budget (the Legislature is still debating that one). One of the major problems in the NDUS is that those tasked with finding problems and ensuring that the university system follows the law also report to the people in charge of the university system. There have been serious allegations of intimidation of these people, and it’s not hard to see why (more on that tomorrow).

Can you imagine being an auditor and having to issue a negative legal opinion or audit about your boss?

Anyway, that issue is no longer in HB1003. The auditors issue is definitely settled (assuming Dalrymple doesn’t veto) but the lawyers question has yet to be settled.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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