Port: To reinvent education in North Dakota, let's take existing universities out of the state constitution

Before we start talking about building a bunch of career academies, let's first strip the constitution of institutional mandates to give modern policymakers flexibility to be creative in their allocation of resources.

Gov. Doug Burgum applauds Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford as he's introduced for the State of the State address Wednesday, Jan. 29, in Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

MINOT, N.D. — This week, Gov. Doug Burgum delivered his second off-year, state-of-the-state address in Grand Forks.

These events aren't exactly traditional. The only one required is delivered to the Legislature in odd-numbered years. Burgum's decision to do even-year addresses, too, is a good one, though having it sponsored by a lobbying group like the Chamber of Commerce is a bit unseemly.

I'm not a fan of blurring the lines between the official duties of our elected leaders and their political activities.

An official address shouldn't be sponsored by any private group.

But I digress.


The portion of the address which caught my attention dealt with the Legacy Fund. Burgum has some big plans, and it's about time.

There is a faction of North Dakota politicos who want to do nothing with the fund but let it grow. These people forget what a moral hazard that creates. Billions of dollars sitting in a state fund with no defined purpose is a recipe for disaster. Particularly in a state with a stupidly wide open initiated measure process which allows any interest with deep pockets — like a California billionaire (Marsy's Law) or a bunch of Hollywood celebrities (the ethics measure) — buy their dumb ideas onto our ballots.

It's high time our elected leaders got around to defining a purpose for the Legacy Fund before some third party interests do it for us.

Burgum says he wants to invest Legacy Fund dollars in " infrastructure, property tax relief through smart growth incentives, and transformational legacy projects" while continuing to grow the fund.

There are nearly $7 billion in the Legacy Fund now. Burgum says his plan will spend in the areas he's mentioned while still growing it to $26 billion by 2033.

Taking that claim at face value for the moment, it sure sounds like something we should get behind.

One specific proposal is the construction of career academies to promote "workforce development and choice-ready students."

This is a strong idea, and in keeping with Burgum's repeated promises to reinvent government. Our current higher education is not efficient, promoting bloated campus bureaucracies and burdensome student loan debt. Career academies would focus on getting students the training and certifications they need to pursue the careers they want.


That these academies could also train the sort of workers our state's traditional and emerging industries need is a bonus.

The thing is, North Dakota's public university system already has eleven institutions, with the location and function of eight of them mandated in our state's constitution.

They are named there because when the politicians drafted the constitution, they were busy doling out government jobs to their districts. In addition to the eight universities, the state constitution also mandates the location of the state mental hospital (Jamestown), the state veterans home (Lisbon), and numerous other institutions.

That now-ancient horsetrading has left North Dakota in a weak position to, well, reinvent government as Burgum wants to do.

Before we start talking about building a bunch of career academies, let's first strip the constitution of institutional mandates to give modern policymakers flexibility to be creative in their allocation of resources.

I won't hold my breath, though. The same overweening sense of self-interest which created these mandates in the first place is still present today in a blinkered, short-sighted, thoroughly parochial opposition to changing them.


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Rob Port, founder of, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.

Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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