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Published September 13, 2010, 08:54 PM

Group Considers ND Higher Ed Spending Growth

The chairman of a higher education oversight committee warned Monday about "scary" budget trends for North Dakota's university system.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The chairman of a higher education oversight committee warned Monday about "scary" budget trends for North Dakota's university system.

Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, said the higher spending levels will be difficult to maintain if the state's economy begins to falter. Higher prices for oil and agricultural products have contributed to a state budget surplus that may exceed $800 million next year.

In 2009, North Dakota lawmakers approved a 26 percent increase in the system's two-year budget, which includes 11 public colleges and the University of North Dakota's medical school. Approved spending rose from $634 million to $796 million.

North Dakota's Board of Higher Education is asking for another increase of more than 20 percent during the state's next two-year budget period. The 2011 Legislature will consider the request when it begins its regular session in January.

"We have to sustain what we do," Skarphol said. "If you look at some of the statistics that are available with regard to the amount of money we're going to have in the general fund ... it's a little bit scary, quite frankly."

Robert Harms, a Bismarck attorney and consultant who is active in groups that advocate less state spending, said it is difficult for North Dakota taxpayers to understand the increases, especially when students' tuition costs continue rising.

Harms and Skarphol spoke Monday at a meeting of members of the higher education committee and a group of outside advisers, called the "round-table." The group is concluding its two-day meeting Tuesday at the state Capitol.

"Twenty percent general fund increases by this part of our government is out of touch with people who go to work each morning ... and are struggling to pay their bills," Harms said.

Jon Backes, president of the state Board of Higher Education, said the board and college officials do not expect the increases to continue indefinitely. North Dakota's healthy economy has made it possible to invest more state funds in its higher education system, Backes said.

"My belief is that when economic times are good, you have to decide where you're going to invest," Backes said. "If I were a farmer and I was trying to farm out of the same building that my grandfather built in 1941, with the same tractor that he farmed with back in that day, I'd be out of business."

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