North Dakota House rejects higher ed restructuring bill backed by Burgum

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum meets with The Forum Editorial Board to talk about his proposed state budget Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

BISMARCK — The North Dakota House overwhelmingly defeated a bill outlining a new higher education governance structure Tuesday, Feb. 12, in a rebuke to a task force formed by Gov. Doug Burgum that recommended drastic changes to the existing model.

House Bill 1500 failed in a 74-19 vote. The legislation was contingent on voters approving a constitutional amendment that had not yet been introduced in the Legislature.

Lawmakers still have a week to introduce proposed amendments to the constitution, however. And in a statement issued after the vote, Burgum said he and other supporters of changing the higher education structure will keep working to put a proposal on the ballot in 2020.

"North Dakota voters deserve the opportunity to vote on an improved governance model that will make institutions more accountable to their governing boards and taxpayers, while also allowing them to be more responsive to the powerful economic, technological, cultural and demographic forces shaping higher education," he said. "This conversation continues in both chambers.”

A Burgum spokesman didn't immediately provide details on any legislative efforts. Bismarck Republican Rep. Mike Nathe, a member of Burgum's task force, said the Senate is working on a resolution adjusting the existing single-board setup.

House Bill 1500 was the product of Burgum's task force that recommended splitting the state's higher education system into three boards. The legislation was later amended to a two-board model, combining the two research universities under one board and grouping the nine other institutions under another panel.

Burgum created the 15-member task force through an executive order in late 2017, three years after voters easily rejected a proposal to replace the State Board of Higher Education with a three-member, full-time commission. The governor shrugged off that result and said his efforts were not a response to recent controversies in the North Dakota University System.

Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, the bill's primary sponsor, said higher education has changed significantly since the State Board of Higher Education was created eight decades ago. She said the change would boost accountability and allow for more "localized attention."

But Grand Forks Republican Rep. Mark Owens, chairman of the House Education Committee, noted the proposal would place the head of a new Office of Higher Education in the governor's Cabinet, seemingly reversing one of the "primary reasons" for the board's creation in 1938. That constitutional amendment came after then-Gov. William Langer's meddling in higher education affairs.

Owens also argued the bill was "premature" because the change would ultimately require voter approval.

"It appears to be the classic cart before the horse," he said.