BISMARCK - North Dakota House members have greenlit the plan for a Theodore Roosevelt presidential library, clearing the way for Gov. Doug Burgum's biggest push this legislative session.
House members voted 70-22 on Wednesday morning, April 24, to adopt conference committee amendments to the governor's office budget that include the library and also mandate he take a salary. Burgum, as a candidate in 2016, pledged to forgo a salary to help "cut runaway government spending." Now he'll have to take $274,112 the next two years.
As passed, the governor's office budget includes an endowment fund derived from $15 million in combined excess funds and authorization for a $35 million loan, to help pay for operation and maintenance of the library. That money is only available after $100 million is raised in cash or pledged donations to built the library.
'Now is the time'
Debate lasted about 50 minutes on the House floor Wednesday as 20 House members rose to speak for or against the library.
Their arguments echoed an earlier Senate debate, calling to "seize the day" on a rare opportunity or pointing to potential tourism impacts and Roosevelt's legacy when he came to ranch near Medora to recover from his mother's and wife's deaths in 1884.
"North Dakota had a profound effect on TR's life and his presidency," said Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck.
"We should be proud to call him our adoptive son," said Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby.
Opponents pointed to Roosevelt's status as a New Yorker, framed the project as a "want vs. a need" and posed other priorities as more pressing.
"Until we're willing to offer true, economic, fiscal relief to our citizens, I can't support something like this," said Rep. Daniel Johnston, R-Kathryn. "A good start would be property tax."
Longtime Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, who rarely speaks during floor sessions, rose last to ram home the library as a project with impact for the future.
"This is not about us. It's about the future. It's about our grandkids and it's about their grandkids," Martinson said.
'There is a lot of interest'
Burgum welcomed the House vote in a statement from his office: "This game-changing legislation supports the creation of a world-class tourist attraction that will elevate North Dakota in the eyes of the nation, have lasting economic and educational benefits and share the incredible legacy of Theodore Roosevelt for generations to come.”
In an interview, the governor lauded the funding structure as "a smart piece of legislation" that is "not competing with any dollars coming from appropriations" for the next two-year budget cycle. He also commended what impact a related Roosevelt scholarship program may have.
"There was something more than a library and museum that was birthed today," Burgum said.
He called Wednesday's House vote "a historic day" and a "starting line," noting "generous indications from people" of about $52 million so far for the project.
"There is a lot of interest," Burgum said.
The governor pushed the library this session as the foremost of his nine proposals using Legacy Fund earnings, testifying twice and holding legislative receptions with guests such as Theodore "Ted" Roosevelt V, descendant of the 26th president.
As for his salary, which kicks in July 1, Burgum said he'll have until then to ponder "on what I may want to do with that."
In emailed comments, Ted Roosevelt commended the House vote and those involved with the library proposal. He also said he looks forward to the work ahead.
"My great-great-grandfather, Theodore Roosevelt, was proud to be a man of action. Never short on words, TR valued deeds and the real life application of ideas," Roosevelt said.
"Today, the idea of a world-class Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota went from being an idea to an action, thanks to the bravery and vision of hundreds of legislators, supporters, friends, board members and Governor Burgum."
Lawmakers have struggled this session with how to insert the library into legislation, bouncing around four bills before embedding the library into the governor's office budget while forcing Burgum to take his salary as House budget writers have desired he do.
The governor had originally proposed $50 million in Legacy Fund earnings for the library endowment fund to be matched by the $100 million in donations. But Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, brought the amendments last week that altered the funding mechanism.
The library amendments also include provisions to send $10 million of the $100 million to be raised to Dickinson State University for the ongoing digitization of President Roosevelt's papers and records and to fund the Theodore Roosevelt scholarship program.
Additionally, $300,000 would go to the city of Dickinson for previous planning expenses before the library's concept moved to Medora in 2018.
Wardner's library amendments replaced a water project bill in legislation that passed the Senate, but paused in the House over concerns of constitutionality and "germaneness" to the original water bill.
The library amendments then came on Friday to the conference committee on the governor's office budget, to which conferees agreed on Tuesday and the Senate passed later that day.
After approving the conference committee report, the House approved the 2019-21 governor's office budget by 76-16.
The bill now goes to Burgum, who is expected to sign it.