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THE ONLOOKER: Higher ed may face tough session after all

Mike Jacobs

It appears that the North Dakota Board of Higher Education has a death wish. Having escaped assassination by the voters, it presents itself for vivisection by the Legislature.

In the aftermath of November’s election, it looked as if the board had won a respite. Only 25 percent of voters favored a constitutional amendment that would have abolished the board and replaced it with a three-member governing body appointed by the governor.

That measure was the last Legislature’s attack on the university system, which was then in turmoil and was soon to fire its chancellor.

Things got tamped down fairly well, but old enmities have re-ignited.

This might have been unavoidable. As a whole, the North Dakota Legislature is a suspicious group generally distrustful of government and sometimes hostile to it.

The board didn’t improve its position with legislators in the wake of the election.

Instead, by asking for exemptions to the state’s open records laws, the board aroused legislative suspicions.

So did its process of choosing a new chancellor.

At a “Roles and Responsibilities Taskforce” meeting late last week, UND President Robert O. Kelley said his “singular concern here is that we not adopt an organizational plan that will prohibit a president from taking an option to the board directly.”

Kelley’s statement seems innocent in a world built on delegation and shared responsibility.

That’s not the world the Legislature envisions, though. Lawmakers fear a system of independent fiefdoms.

Nor was the situation improved when Dean Bresciani, North Dakota State University’s president, showed up in Bismarck with a driver and a bodyguard. To be fair, NDSU calls the escort a “security liaison.”

Still, this smacked a little too much of an imperial presidency.

North Dakota lawmakers value humility in state officials.

The secrecy request is not a sweeping one. The board wants to exempt drafts of key personnel evaluations. That’s backing down a bit. Earlier, the chancellor and board members had suggested exempting completed evaluations and drafts of internal audits.

Nevertheless, the request re-awakened the suspicions of an already distrustful Legislature. The thinking goes like this: If they want secrecy, they must have something to hide.

Equally damaging for the board, the secrecy request galvanized media across the state. Their question is, what harm does openness cause?

There may be some, but on balance, the request for secrecy does more harm.

Plus it was badly timed, though this wasn’t the board’s fault. Legislative rules requires bills from state agencies to be filed early, and the board met the deadline — which just happened to be right on the heels of the organizational session and the governor’s budget address, when lawmakers were paying attention.

They may have noticed that the figure for the university system is $18 million less than the last two-year budget and $80 million less than the system asked for.

More likely, they were focused on the bottom line. The budget recommendation for higher education in the next two years is $1,061,413,317.

More than a billion bucks!

At this point, there are three possible points of attack, though legislators may create others, as they did in 2013.

The first is the budget. This year, the appropriation for higher education starts out in the House, which generally is more hostile than the Senate. Its hearings will be an early indication of how tough the session might be for the university system.

A second point of attack is the secrecy legislation. Those hearings are likely to bring a lot of venting from frustrated lawmakers.

The third point is the sharpest. It is the confirmation hearing for board’s members. One of these, Kevin Melicher, is new and probably not in any danger. The other is Kirsten Diederich, the current board chair, who has been reappointed.

One of the laws of politics is at work here: Someone must be blamed when things go wrong. Diederich’s reappointment offers a handy opportunity. She has a strong ally in Gov. Jack Dalrymple, and her reconfirmation may develop into a test of Republican legislative loyalty to a Republican governor.

It will take a lot of effort to avoid a fight. At least some lawmakers will spend some time sharpening their knives this holiday season.

The legislative session begins Jan. 6.

Jacobs is the Herald’s former publisher.

For several years in the 1970s, Jacobs published a newspaper called The Onlooker about North Dakota politics. This weekly column resurrects the name — and the spirit — of that undertaking.