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College tuition debate turns into depopulation divide

BISMARCK -- House Democrats put forth a plan Wednesday to blunt North Dakota's planned double-digit college tuition increases, which turned into a debate about out-migration.

BISMARCK -- House Democrats put forth a plan Wednesday to blunt North Dakota's planned double-digit college tuition increases, which turned into a debate about out-migration.

The motion was in the House while legislators were considering a bill that reduces the number of state employees and turns the salary savings into raises for the remainder.

Wednesday was the third and last day of a special session called by Gov. John Hoeven after he vetoed several bills from the regular session last week. He vetoed the state employee plan earlier because he said it was inflexible.

The Democrats proposed taking $5.2 million from the Bank of North Dakota's student loan trust fund and giving it to the university system's campuses, in effect buying down tuition increases that were announced this week, some of which are as high as 20 percent.

"This will help us fix something that we left under-funded in the first session," said Rep. Pam Gulleson, D-Rutland.

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Republicans, who outnumber Democrats 2-1 in the Legislature, said there is nothing wrong with the funding given higher education this year.

"We've done a good job," said Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo. With $950 million of the state's $5.1 billion budget dedicated to public schools, colleges and universities, he said, "we are contributing as much as we can contribute."

Rep. Blair Thoreson, R-Fargo, said the price of higher education in North Dakota is "a terrific bargain."

But Rep. Woody Thorpe, D-Minot, said the tuition increases will only increase the flight of young people from the state.

"I want you to think about the message you're sending to students right now," he said.

Debate continued on the bill itself and its call for reducing state employees by 176.

Rep. Eliot Glassheim, D-Grand Forks, said the bill is more of the same hunkering down mentality in the state.

"The population shrinks, schools shrink, counties shrink and the Legislature boldly focuses its attention on shrinking the government to keep up with the shrinking population," he said. "I'm sure my friends who delight in saying no to every hope of an expanding future will put lipstick on this pig."

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He said he hoped North Dakotans can change their minds about the state's direction.

"The battle is joined. The battle is between those who plan to shrink and those who plan to grow."

Gulleson's motion was defeated along party lines and the bill passed along party lines. It also passed the Senate and Hoeven said he will sign it.

In other action Wednesday, the Legislature passed bills to:

E Increase the Department of Corrections' budget $1 million. The governor vetoed the regular session's budget bill, saying it left prisons under-funded for guards and rehabilitation staff. He said he will sign the new bill.

E Increase the flexibility in a bill that consolidates state government information technology systems and workers.

The governor vetoed the regular session's bill because he said it dictated an inflexible bureaucracy that would cost more money, not save it.

Sen. Larry Robinson, D-Valley City, said the bill's provisions for it to begin before a proposed study can be completed "doesn't make a lot of sense."

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Hoeven said he will sign the bill.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830

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