BISMARCK — North Dakota voters are poised to consider growing the state's higher education board after House lawmakers had a change of heart Tuesday, April 2.
The House approved a resolution seeking to nearly double the membership of the State Board of Higher Education Tuesday, one day after narrowly rejecting the proposal. The constitutional amendment is expected to be on the November 2020 ballot after the Senate concurs with a minor House tweak.
Bismarck Republican Rep. Jason Dockter, who voted against the proposal Monday, asked his colleagues to change their minds. Senate Concurrent Resolution 4016 then passed in a 50-41 vote.
"Let’s let the people vote on this," said Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck.
The proposal would expand the board from eight members to 15. It would also lengthen the non-student board members' terms and prevent their stints from being served consecutively, a move intended to relieve political pressure.
Supporters said a larger board would aid an overworked panel that oversees the state's 11 public colleges and universities. Critics said it would make it more inefficient.
"Bigger is not always better," said Fargo Republican Rep. Jim Kasper. "I believe a large board has more potential to slow the process down."
Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican who campaigned on reinventing government, created a task force in late 2017 to examine potential changes to the state's higher education governance structure. The panel included lawmakers from both parties, campus officials, business leaders and others.
Burgum previously said the state has had a similar model in place for eight decades, going back to a 1938 constitutional amendment that created the State Board of Higher Education, and changes were needed to keep up with the times.
The task force ultimately recommended splitting the board into three panels, but a bill that went before the Legislature was amended into a two-board proposal separating the two research universities from the nine other campuses. The House rejected that bill, prompting the compromise resolution seeking a larger single board.
Burgum continued to support a two-board model, however, arguing it would have a better chance at the ballot box than the "incrementalism" of an expanded single board. He can't veto the resolution passed by lawmakers, however.
A Burgum spokesman said Tuesday that the governor didn't have anything to add beyond his previous statements on the issue.
State Board of Higher Education Chairman Don Morton, who said he was speaking as a member of Burgum's task force, said he preferred a two-board model that could better allow its members to focus on the missions of their respective campuses. He suggested that Burgum may seek to put the idea on the ballot himself.
"As a task force member, my druthers would be to also give the voters the option of the one board that they're talking about or the two boards," Morton said.