Here’s a riddle for you: What does a stiff north wind have in common with the North Dakota Legislature?
Answer: They both have a chilling effect.
That's been evident for quite a while. Several weeks ago, I used the word “reactionary” to describe this session, though I made clear that I didn’t mean it pejoratively.
But the last fortnight has brought even more restrictive legislation. Today, the appropriate adjectives are regressive, unnecessary and expensive. The measure gaining the most attention is Senate Bill 2030, which prohibits state colleges from signing contracts for research with any organization that performs abortions. The bill as amended threatens arrest, fines and potential jail time for any faculty or staff who sign such a contract.
This is aimed at NDSU, which has an ongoing contract with Planned Parenthood to “provide evidence-based sex education for at-risk youth in the state.” The quote is from a correction in Sunday’s Herald. An earlier story had said the grant trained teachers to teach sex education.
In any case, no abortions are involved. Planned Parenthood does provide abortions, but not in North Dakota. Nevertheless, NDSU has become a target, and so, potentially, have other colleges and universities in the state. This is alarming enough that a petition opposing the bill gained more than 1,000 signatures in two days.
While the bill has a superficial link to North Dakota, it makes more sense to understand the move as part of a larger strategy that’s national in scope. Arkansas’ transgender legislation was in the news last week.
Other legislation that’s emerged in North Dakota this session only strengthens that point of view. Another bill attempts to regulate participation by transgender youth in school athletics, for example. Then there’s the bill, already passed, that permits displaying the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. And the repeal of the Equal Rights Amendment.
All of these are linked to State Sen. Janne Myrdal of Edinburg, who’s been described as the Legislature’s “most ardent opponent of abortion” in the state’s newspapers. This is not her first rodeo. In 2014, Myrdal presented an initiated constitution amendment “relating to the inalienable rights to life of every human being at every stage of development.” The quote here is the amendment’s ballot title.
Voters turned it down 64% to 36%.
It’s a little difficult to understand, then, how legislators have become fixated, yet again, with this issue – fixated enough to drag in a number of other issues that have no pressing importance in North Dakota.
At least not yet, but it’s not hard to imagine the consequences of legislation of this kind.
Higher education leaders spoke out against the Planned Parenthood bill. NDSU President Dean Bresciani called it a threat to academic freedom. Mark Hagerott, chancellor of the North Dakota University System, worried aloud about the impact on the state’s 10 other public colleges and universities.
This sort of thing gets around, and it could be damaging to the institutions involved and to the higher education system and to the state. It could have a chilling effect on recruitment of students and retention of faculty.
The chill comes just as the university system has reached a level of stability that it hasn’t known in a quarter century. A series of constitutional amendments aimed at restructuring governance of higher education were defeated, indicating a strong level of support for the higher education system – which has been the usual result of attacks ever since the current Board of Higher Education was established in 1939.
Recent developments suggest that the two research institutions, UND and NDSU, are poised to cooperate with one another and to enlarge the state’s research capacity. The university system contracts with private organizations to fund research. Many of them are involved in controversial undertakings. This is commonplace on college campuses, including UND, which get millions from oil and oil companies, and NDSU, which gets millions from ag chemical companies.
These are hardly the only impacts. Others may be as serious, both by reducing enrollment, which means a hit on college budgets, and discouraging academic talent from applying here for fear of gross interference on the state’s campuses.
That’s not quite all, as Tyler Axness, a former state senator, pointed out last week. On his blog called ND xPlains. He asked, “How much money have these extreme lawmakers cost North Dakota?” Note: He’s talking cash, not credibility.
His answer: “We can baseline the cost at $2.8 million just for NDSU alone, just because of a vendetta.” That’s the lost Planned Parenthood contract. The impacts of the loss to at-risk young people isn’t included here. It can’t be calculated.
There are other potential monetary losses, among them, defending lawsuits that might challenge the Ten Commandments bill. More seriously, tourism promoters in the state’s major cities worried aloud about losing sports and entertainment events if the bill regulating transgender athletes becomes law. These events bring big money.
So, the chilling effect of the mean wind blowing out of Bismarck is a threat to the state’s cash, too.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.