In a rare move, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education has endorsed the state Senate’s higher education budget mid-session.

Board members voted unanimously Thursday, Feb. 25, to give their support to Senate Bill 2003, which is the funding bill for the North Dakota University System.

The Senate unanimously approved a $648.7 million base budget for the system earlier this week. The budget also includes more than $40 million in enhancements, including dollars for the Senate's state employee compensation plan, and bond payments with some dollars adjusted for a change in the state’s higher education funding formula.

Board members gave approval to the system’s needs-based budget last summer, but those dollars were based on the previous biennium’s allocations, board Chairman Nick Hacker said. Now, the Senate and the board are looking to a new budget for a new biennium.

“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,” he said. “So, I think this is a little bit unique in that we're in a position to say that we are aligned.”

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Hacker said he had heard “very positive reviews and comments” from legislators following the three days of testimony higher-ed leaders gave in January.

During discussion, some board members questioned what the optics of supporting the bill may look like to legislators in the House and if the board’s support could have an impact moving forward.

Tammy Dolan, chief financial officer for the North Dakota University System, noted that the system will still need to go before a House committee to talk about the budget, but added that having support from SBHE is always welcome.

Dolan is one of the most visible leaders in the system office and has appeared before legislative committees on numerous bills over the past few legislative sessions.

“We're so close to our needs-based budget that I think it would be a positive thing to have that board support,” she said.

Dolan noted that the system can still show legislators other aspects that need funding, beyond the Senate bill.

Additionally, the board members discussed changes to Senate Bill 2030, which provides dollars for the state’s Challenge Grant program. Legislation for the program, which provides $1 of state funding for every $2 raised by the institutions for scholarship funds and faculty endowments, was amended on the Senate floor two weeks ago to include funding for two private institutions in the state as well as a section that would keep funds from universities and colleges that partner with organizations that perform abortions.

The bill would give $20 million in funding to schools across the state.

The Challenge Grant program has been very popular among legislators and institutions since it was first passed in 2013. However, Dolan said the system is opposed to the two amendments on the bill because the changes could impact academic and research freedom for campuses.

“The system office will be testifying in opposition to those sections of the bill, and developing a strategy involving the institution presidents, potentially faculty members, board members and others, so that we have a strategic presence and strategic direction when that hearing is held,” she said.

Liz Legerski, who represents faculty members on the board, expressed concern about the changes made to the bill as well. He called it "non-political and nonpartisan" and "just a great bill for students."

Hacker said there already have been a handful of concerned calls to the board about the amendments.