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North Dakota House set to take up university research bill

University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy makes a point during a question-and-answer session with North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

Multiple Grand Forks-based representatives say they would support some form of a bill that would designate Legacy Fund earnings for research at UND and North Dakota State University meant to diversify the economy of North Dakota.

Senate Bill 2282 is up for a hearing in the House Appropriations committee on Monday afternoon. The committee is chaired by Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Ron Sorvaag, R-Fargo, would transfer 15 percent of Legacy Fund earnings to an economic diversification research fund that would support work by UND and NDSU. The fund would be capped at $45 million.

It passed the Senate 43-4.

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said he would likely vote for some form of the bill and believes the state should be investing in research.

"It's a good use of our resources, especially as we're trying to diversify the economy and making sure we're not solely dependent on one or two industries," Mock said.

However, he would like to see the Legislature set an appropriation and fund it through the general fund or another fund.

"It's really just the technical details, but I think the concept is solid," he said. "I support the concept and I want to make sure we get it right."

Mock said he doesn't have any "immediate issues" with the Legislature using Legacy Fund earnings, however he said he would have a little bit of a "pause" about automatically granting those funds every year. He said the Legislature shouldn't commit to a certain amount to give to the fund every two years.

"I get a little worried about how we're using and allocating and managing the Legacy Fund," he said. "It's easy today but we've got to realize that the Legacy Fund is something that will outlast all of us, all of our political careers and hopefully will be here for many generations. So, we want to be very prudent with how we're using that, especially on an ongoing basis."

Rep. Jake Blum, R-Grand Forks, said he is supportive of the idea but added he'll need to wait for the hearing before deciding if this bill is the best way to pursue it or if another option, such as putting money into the university system budget, is the better way forward.

"Research is vitally important, and I support investing more into our institutions so they can ultimately do more," he said in an email to the Herald.

There are "plenty of conversations happening" with regard to Legacy Fund earnings, so it is important for legislators to "not fixate in any one particular funding source," Blum said.

Rep. Matt Eidson, D-Grand Forks, says he supports the bill fully and plans to vote in favor of the bill whenever it reaches the House floor.

"I think it's long overdue," he said. "There are states all around the country that have been providing research-based funding to the universities for forever now as a way to drive their economy and also to diversify their economy."

Last year, UND President Mark Kennedy and NDSU President Dean Bresciani spent time traveling around the state to speak about the value of research and its economic impact on the state. The two had previously proposed splitting $100 million over the next biennium, with each school receiving $25 million a year. However, that number has since been reduced to 15 percent of Legacy Fund earnings.

The money would not be available for use until after the biennium is concluded, so a loan function is worked into the bill that would allow the universities to access the money sooner.

While the current form of the bill sits at $45 million for the two institutions to split, Eidson said he would have liked to see the proposal to stay closer to the $100 million level.

Eidson said the research work would be good for the state of North Dakota and UND. He added while he's not a co-sponsor on this bill, he has previously sponsored bills that support economic diversification in North Dakota, including bills related to unmanned aerial systems.

The House recently passed HB 1333, which contains similar language as Senate Bill 2282, but does not limit grants to just the state's research universities. The funding is also lower, around $3 million.

The House bill, introduced by Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, would create a Legacy Investment Fund for Technology that would support technology advancement in the state. Under this bill, a committee would be created that would also include the president of the Bank of North Dakota, with no specific higher education officials.

The fund would be administered by the Bank of North Dakota.

The House passed the bill 73-20. Mock supported the House bill.

Mock noted the House and Senate bills will likely end up going to conference committees where the two houses will work together to put out one bill that would support research and economic diversification in the state.

Rep. Steve Vetter, R-Grand Forks, declined to comment on the bill, noting he hasn't had a chance to read it in full yet.

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook has been covering higher education at the Grand Forks Herald since May 2018. She previously served as the multimedia editor and cops, courts and health reporter at the Dickinson Press from January 2016 to May 2018.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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