As UND’s Andrew Armacost settles into his second semester as leader of the university, the president also is in the midst of his first legislative session. And amid the global coronavirus pandemic, it comes with change and disruption.
At the Capitol, committee rooms, typically packed with people, this year feature spaced-out seating with enough room to properly social distance. Meeting attendees wear face coverings.
Peter Johnson, director of government relations and public affairs for UND's alumni foundation, is a former communications director for the university. He has been accompanying UND leaders to Bismarck since the presidency of Tom Clifford, who held the job for two decades until the early 1990s; Johnson's time with the university has included six full-time presidents and numerous trips to the Capitol.
One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is easier, and more, accessibility for the public, Johnson said. Because meetings now are streamed live, North Dakotans can watch committee hearings and make their voices easily heard in the process by giving virtual testimony. Leaders, like Armacost, can use this tool to give quick testimony about a bill without having to pack up and go to Bismarck.
However, some challenges remain. For example, Johnson said it’s slightly more difficult now to have some face-to-face conversations due to concerns about the coronavirus.
“When you do go to Bismarck you can still visit with legislators, you can still find them in a Capitol Cafe and in the hallway," he said. "But it's not quite the same as it was.”
Having a limited number of people in a committee room is a challenge, Johnson said. It can be difficult to gauge someone’s thoughts on a bill just by watching it over a livestream.
“It's not quite the same as being in a room,” he said. “But it is what it is. Everybody understands that because of COVID there has to be appropriate distancing.”
Despite the differences between this and a typical session, Johnson feels Armacost is doing well as a newcomer to the North Dakota process. While in Bismarck, Johnson and Armacost have been meeting with legislators, when possible.
“You can't beat that face-to-face experience,” Johnson said.
Armacost said that during his trips so far to the Capitol, he has enjoyed the interactions, regardless of the number of people there.
“I felt the level of engagement was high during the sessions, during the questioning and the back-and-forth between the speakers and the legislators,” Armacost said. “I think the amount of engagement in the hallway was high. I didn't stop talking with people the entire time I was there.”
Going forward, Armacost said it will be interesting to see how, and if, virtual testimony is used in the future.
“It's exciting,” Armacost said. “It's government by the people, for the people in the people's living rooms and in their offices. It's really cool.”
Prior to the legislative session, Armacost had virtual meetings with legislators, too, to introduce himself. Much of that work would also typically be done in person, Johnson said, but Armacost is still putting in the work to be as responsive to their questions as possible.
“I think he's doing an excellent job of making those relationships and reaching out to people,” he said.
Since the beginning of the legislative session last month, Armacost has made two trips to Bismarck. Armacost testified before the Senate Appropriations committee in mid-January to speak on UND’s budget and the North Dakota University System’s needs-based budget.
“I think the presentation went well,” Armacost said of his budget presentation to legislators. “What I really appreciated was just the attentiveness and the great questions asked by the legislators themselves.”
He made another trip to Bismarck to speak in front of the House Appropriations Committee, this time to discuss a bill that would give a portion of Legacy Fund earnings to the state’s higher-ed institutions for research.
“I also appreciated the opportunity to be able to engage (lawmakers) out of session, just random interactions and hallways and so forth,” he said. “I found it to be just a really delightful process, a really good process, one that where these legislators are diligently executing their duties and trying to gather as much information and to make good policy for the state.”
Armacost said UND leaders will likely be back to Bismarck after Crossover Day, when the House and Senate switch the bills they are hearing.