BISMARCK — A big-money political committee that derives most of its funding from North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has reemerged after a three-month dormancy to oppose a low-profile measure on the November ballot.

The Dakota Leadership PAC has been sending mailers to homes across the state asking residents to vote against Measure 1, which would expand North Dakota’s Board of Higher Education from eight to 15 members and extend their terms from four to six years.

The influential board oversees North Dakota’s 11 public colleges and universities.

The flyer says Measure 1 is a “bad idea” that would grow bureaucracy, add “red tape” and waste tax dollars.

“Stop big government,” it reads. “Protect our colleges and universities. Vote no on Measure 1.”

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Board members are appointed to the position by the governor, which wouldn’t change if the measure is passed. However, the measure would bar the governor from appointing members to a second consecutive term.

Campaign filings released late Friday night show that Burgum, a former tech executive, has poured nearly $2.5 million of his personal fortune into the committee since it was registered with the state in February. Legislative leaders from Burgum’s own Republican Party accused the governor of interfering in the June primary elections and violating the separation of powers after the committee invested heavily in smear campaigns against elected conservatives.

The committee targeted the seat held by powerful House Appropriations Chairman Jeff Delzer with mailers attacking the Underwood Republican and promotional ads in support of his intra-party challengers, David Andahl and Dave Nehring. Delzer and a few other candidates in the committee’s crosshairs lost in the primaries to Burgum-backed challengers.

The committee’s opposition to Measure 1 has generated a fresh round of criticism from several lawmakers, who say Burgum has an alternative vision for expanding the higher education board.

Besides Measure 1, the committee has recently picked a favorite in the race for state superintendent. The group has sponsored a mailer asking voters to reelect Kirsten Baesler to a third term as she faces off against Underwood Public Schools Superintendent Brandt Dick.

It’s the second time the committee has propped up a candidate for statewide office in a race between two conservatives. Burgum and the committee threw their support behind Fargo Rep. Thomas Beadle in his successful bid for the Republican nomination in the state treasurer’s race against Kathryn Rep. Dan Johnston, who boasted the support of President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer.

Flyers send out by the Dakota Leadership PAC oppose ballot Measure 1 and support Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
Flyers send out by the Dakota Leadership PAC oppose ballot Measure 1 and support Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Levi Bachmeier, a former Burgum policy director and Dakota Leadership’s chairman, declined to comment on the committee’s campaign strategy, but he confirmed its opposition to Measure 1 and support for Baesler. Bachmeier did not respond to further questions.

Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for Burgum’s campaign, did not respond to Forum News Service’s request to meet with the governor.

Despite the name, the Dakota Leadership PAC is not classified as a "political action committee" under state campaign finance laws. Instead, it's labeled a "multicandidate committee,” meaning it does not legally have to report exactly how or where it spends money.

An unheralded measure

The committee’s opposition to Measure 1 marks the first notable campaigning either way on the under-the-radar issue. Lawmakers and political activists have put the spotlight on Measure 2, which would make it harder for a citizen-initiated ballot measure to change the state Constitution.

The state Legislature put Measure 1 on the ballot when it passed a resolution in 2019 allowing voters to decide if they wanted to expand the board.

The resolution came after lawmakers gave the cold shoulder to a bill that would have created three separate boards — one each for the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State, and one for the state’s other nine institutions.

That idea stemmed from a task force put together by Burgum in late 2017 to consider potential changes to the state's higher education governance model. The task force, which met for nearly a year, included legislators, campus leadership and business people.

Burgum said at that time that the state’s governance model was outdated.

The task force ultimately recommended splitting the board into three panels, but a bill that went before the Legislature last year was amended into a two-board proposal separating the two research universities from the nine other campuses. The House rejected that bill, eventually compromising on the resolution.

After the original proposal died, Burgum said he supported a two-board model, arguing it would have a better chance at the ballot box than the "incrementalism" of an expanded single board.

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, was one of the legislators who introduced the resolution to put the potential board expansion on the ballot.

Mock said there were questions during the legislative session about whether the governor’s office would oppose expanding the board because they instead wanted to put an initiated measure with more substantial structural changes on on a future ballot. The governor’s office declined to say whether that was the case, chalking it up to rumors.

“That definitely sent a little bit of a signal as to why the Dakota Leadership PAC and others may be resisting this, because if the Legislature is not going to bring governance change that is more aligned with what that task force was recommending, then they would rather have no change now and offer other options as an initiated measure in another in a future election,” Mock said. “If this passes, it's going to make it more challenging, more difficult for a multi-tiered governing body to be brought forward.”

Rep. Rick Becker accused the governor of hypocrisy in a Facebook video posted earlier this week. The Bismarck Republican said the flyer paid for by the committee condemns Measure 1 for creating more bureaucracy, but Burgum’s preference to form two more higher ed boards would add more red tape at an elevated cost to taxpayers.

“What pisses me off is his gall, his audacity, the deceitfulness — it just doesn’t stop,” Becker said. “Having limitless money does not give you the power to be that deceitful and not have repercussions at some point.”

Becker, who harshly criticized Burgum’s spending in the primary races, alleges the governor only wants three boards because his alma mater, NDSU, would have more autonomy to spend wildly. The lawmaker suggested to his supporters that they vote for Measure 1 because it would make the board slightly more efficient, while holding off Burgum’s “incredible scheme of multiple boards.”

Former board chairman Don Morton, who finished his second term in June, said he does not believe expanding the state board to 15 members will help any issues the current board faces.

Morton said he was in favor of one of the models discussed by Burgum’s task force that would have given one board to the state’s research institutions, one to the regional, four-year schools and one to the two-year colleges.

“This also addressed the issue of time, where you'd have probably a smaller board, five or six people, but they'd be focused on just one (type of institution).”

Records show that Morton, a former NDSU football coach and Burgum’s chief of staff at Microsoft, donated $5,000 to the committee in May.