BISMARCK -- This week, for the possibly the first time in 20 years, North Dakota’s Legislature passed the higher education funding bill without the bill first going through a conference committee.

The budget, typically one of the last approved by lawmakers, was largely the same as set forth in January by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The legislation includes more than $686.6 million in state funding for the system and its 11 institutions.

It’s a long way from Gov. Doug Burgum’s proposed budget in December, which called for a 7.5% cut to the North Dakota higher-ed system amid falling enrollments across the North Dakota University System. It would have meant the loss of around 200 jobs systemwide, higher-ed leaders had estimated at the time.

“It’s a sigh of relief,” said Tammy Dolan, chief financial officer for NDUS. “The stability that this budget presents for our institutions is not what we were expecting going into the session. That stability allows our institutions to keep doing what they're doing, without having to worry about additional cuts on top of those that we've already incurred in the prior years.”

Rather than immediately go with the proposed cuts laid out by Burgum, legislators started with the NDUS needs-based budget that previously had been approved by the State Board of Higher Education.

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Dolan said the system essentially had its needs-based budget approved by the Legislature, which included no budget cuts, supporting proposed changes to the system’s funding formula, and a good compensation package for its employees.

“I think it's a great bill and I'm glad that it's done early,” she said. “I think it was a very reasonable bill. The Legislature is obviously very supportive of higher education, and they came out with a package that both sides could support.”

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who heads up the Senate Appropriations Committee, said during the floor session this week that he’s been bringing the higher education budget to the Senate floor for 20 years, and it’s the first time he remembers the legislation not first going to a conference committee.

The Senate, which had originally unanimously passed the budget in February, concurred Tuesday with the version passed by the House. Holmberg said the differences between the two bills amounted to around $329,000.

“At the end of the day we felt it was a pretty good bill because we had already said it was a pretty good bill,” Holmberg said during Tuesday’s floor session.

The Senate again passed the bill unanimously on Tuesday and the legislation now heads to Burgum’s desk.

Backed by board

The budget also had the backing from the State Board of Higher Education, which in a rare move gave a public nod of support to the bill in February when it was originally in the Senate.

“We do have a bill that's in front of us that's very closely aligned, not only with the needs-based budget but also with several other requests,” SBHE Chairman Nick Hacker said in February. “So, I think this is a little bit unique in that we're in a position to say that we are aligned.”

Though considered, legislators did not include funding for North Dakota’s Challenge Fund grants. Those dollars remain tied up in Senate Bill 2030, a bill meant to give state dollars for matching funds for scholarships for the state’s public institutions.

However, the bill has a controversial amendment attached to it dealing with organizations that perform abortions, such as Planned Parenthood. As currently written, the legislation would penalize schools that sign contracts with organizations that perform abortions. Opponents of the amendment say the language would hurt academic freedom for institutions, while amendment proponents believe the legislation sends a message to North Dakota State University and its current grant work with Planned Parenthood.

What ultimately will happen with the bill, and funding for the grant program, remains up in the air.

Dolan said the system office will continue to monitor that and other bills that relate to higher education, including House Bill 1380, which would give state colleges and universities access to a percentage of Legacy Fund earnings for research purposes. That proposal is meant to expand the research capacities of UND, North Dakota State and the nine other institutions. The idea is to find ways to diversify the state’s economy.

“This appropriation bill is that first step,” Dolan said. “Having a strong appropriations bill, which is our core funding, is always our first goal. So at least we have that done now, and we'll continue working on all the other bills that are related to us.”