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OUR OPINION: Reject amendments that would hammer higher-ed funding

N.D. House members should turn back a subcommittee's recommendations. When it comes to voting wisely on major construction projects or dramatic reforms, two years of study and preparation for lawmakers is a lot better than two weeks. Let alone tw...

Our Opinion

N.D. House members should turn back a subcommittee's recommendations.

When it comes to voting wisely on major construction projects or dramatic reforms, two years of study and preparation for lawmakers is a lot better than two weeks.

Let alone two days.

But two days is about how long the North Dakota House Appropriations Committee is getting to study a subcommittee's higher-education amendments, which -- if passed -- would upend higher ed funding.

That's not enough time. And the fact that the subcommittee threw its amendments into the mix without study, without warning and without regard for the session's looming close is reason enough to reject them.

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The last minute is no time to be making radical changes of this sort. Especially when millions of dollars, thousands of jobs and tens of thousands of students are at stake, and double especially when well-studied and widely supported alternatives are available, as they are in Bismarck.

"New amendments in the Legislature could derail efforts to shift to a performance-based higher education funding system and lead to a funding crunch for campuses," Forum News Service reported Wednesday.

Note that date: Wednesday, April 10, Day 64 of an 80-day legislative session.

Case closed.

"The new language cuts funding that would have covered increased costs for salaries, inflation, capital projects and other campus expenses over the next biennium, potentially trimming millions of dollars in payments to the institutions. ...

"The subcommittee also approved several amendments Tuesday morning to Senate Bill 2200, legislation that would convert the state's higher education funding formula to a plan to pay campuses based on the number of credit hours completed rather than by student enrollment."

These sentences communicate the basics of the amendments. But North Dakotans should learn more about the amendments' scope, especially their effect on projects that lawmakers and others have studied for two years or more.

For example, among the capital projects that any "funding crunch" might squeeze is the proposed expansion of the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Recall the history of that proposal: The 2011 Legislature mandated a study of North Dakota's health-personnel needs. That study was completed -- and the needs, it concluded, are profound.

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The state's fastest-in-America population growth makes an existing shortage of health professionals even worse, especially in rural areas. Luckily, UND specializes in training those practitioners and does as good a job of it as any school in the United States.

That's why UND-trained doctors, nurses and therapists populate every clinic and hospital in the state. That's why health-care administrators from Williston to Wahpeton support the medical school's proposed expansion, and that's why the North Dakota Senate endorsed the ambitious project in a landslide, 34-13.

By cutting the funding for capital projects and so rendering construction funds scarce, the amendments could hurt this project's prospects, too, supporters fear.

Such an action would be a mistake. North Dakotans want and deserve an orderly system for approving capital projects for their university system. That's exactly the process which has been underway in Bismarck, and it's one the Appropriations Committee and full House should restore.

Here's another example: the performance-based funding system that the new amendments could "derail."

"The idea of providing incentives for reaching stated goals appeals to many legislators who have grown weary of the constant plea for more money from the state's universities," a news story reported -- in 2011.

The performance-based funding proposal grew out of those concerns. And as news stories have noted, the proposal now is supported by the leaders of all 11 campuses, the governor, the chancellor and the Senate.

It took two years to build that consensus among often-rival groups. It took one day for the subcommittee to discard it.

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Other House members must reject the subcommittee's action.

North Dakota prospers when its lawmakers make big decisions via the Legislature's regular order. That means hearings, it means testimony, and it means each chamber showing respect for the other's considered point of view.

What it does not mean is using hog-house amendments to sabotage years of work. By the way, the phrase "hog house" grew out of legislation involving a South Dakota pig barn. That's the wrong arena in which to draft higher-education policy, and North Dakota House members should take note.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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