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Legislature passes higher ed budget

BISMARCK -- The North Dakota Legislature gave its final approval to the state's higher education budget on Thursday in one of the last actions of this legislative session.

The bill combines funding for equity and tuition affordability, and reduces the total amount by $1.4 million to $15.2 million. The funding will be distributed to campuses based on existing funding distribution formulas.

Senate Assistant Minority Leader Mac Schneider of Grand Forks was disappointed the bill did not cap tuition increases at 2.5 percent for four-year schools as Gov. Jack Dalrymple recommended.

"It is a good thing that the equity funding has been restored, but it shouldn't come at the expense of college affordability," Schneider said.

Rep. Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck, also opposed the lack of a tuition increase limit and the combining of the funding in the bill.

"They don't have to spend one penny of this money to reduce the tuition," he said Wednesday night during the House debate.

There has been a $278 million increase in general fund spending for higher education in the past 10 years, he said. There has also been a 110 percent increase in revenue from tuition and fees, Dosch said.

"I understand why our students are upset. I understand why their families are upset," he said.

"Does anyone in this body actually believe that the board or their chancellor is going to say, 'With this much money, we don't need to increase our tuition anymore?'"

Dosch asked the House to reject the bill and send it back for more work.

Rep. Clark Williams, D-Wahpeton, who was on the negotiating committee, said he's not pleased with certain parts of the bill, either. However, he warned legislators that they "have no idea what you're going to get back" if they sent the bill back for more work.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said he would be "shocked and chagrined" if the board goes above the governor's recommendation of holding tuition steady at two-year colleges and a 2.5 percent limit at the four-year schools.

The House approved the bill on a 69-23 vote late Wednesday. The Senate passed it on a 43-4 vote Thursday.

The budget provides $19.4 million to the university system for student financial assistance grants. There is also $47 million in general funds for capital projects.

The North Dakota University System/University of North Dakota joint information technology building project will receive $12.5 million in general funds and special fund authority of $8 million. There is also authority for an additional $5 million for the project from information technology savings.

The North Dakota State College of Science and Valley City State University will each receive $10.3 million for Bisek Hall and the Rhoades Science Center, respectively. Funding was reduced by $200,000 for both projects. The bill provides authority for each campus to use $200,000 of special funds for the projects.

The bill gives North Dakota State University authority to use previous unspent funding for the Minard Hall project.

Legislators approved $866,000 for Lake Region State College in Devils Lake for roof replacement projects, $55,000 to Mayville State University for a drainage study and $900,000 to Dickinson State University.

DSU is directed to use $750,000 for the digitization of documents related to the Theodore Roosevelt Center and $150,000 for programs experiencing a loss of funding due to decreased oil royalty revenue.

Special fund authority of $750,000 is provided for the UND flight operations center renovation project. Funding of $1 million for tribal college assistance grants is restored.

The budget includes $1 million for STEM teacher education enhancement funding. This provides $250,000 each to Dickinson State University, Mayville State University, Valley City State University and Minot State University.

Legislators also approved $607,609 for NDSU for a new joint master's degree in public health program administered by NDSU and UND.

Nearly $2 million was added to allow UND's medical school to increase program enrollment and to increase the number of available student medical residency positions available. The bill also gives $100,000 for a space utilization study of the medical school.

Schneider called the medical school funding "a critical first step."

Operations funding for the university system office was reduced by $500,000, and money for expanding academic and technical programs was removed.

The final budget for the entire system is $754.4 million, of which $645.6 million is general funds.

This is an 8.2 percent increase from the 2009-11 budget and is below what the governor recommended, said Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga. Holmberg said the higher education budget is toward the bottom of percentage increases compared to other state agency budgets.

The bill also includes a request for a legislative study of college programs that address the workforce needs of the state, including a review of using graduated tuition rates to increase enrollment in these programs.

Another study request is to review the ability of UND's medical school to meet the health care needs of the state. The study must include a review of the feasibility of expanding the school.

Schneider said there's a lot to like, but a lot of ways the bill could have been improved.

Sen. Larry Robinson, D-Valley City, was pleased with the budget, but wished the Legislature had done more to help with small campus projects and deferred maintenance.

"I think overall it's a strong package that will go a long ways to meet the needs of the university system for the next two-year time period," he said. "We can always do better. There's certainly room for improvement. But let's not overlook the good that is in (House Bill) 1003."

The bill will now go to the governor for his signature.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.