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Associated Press, Published December 16 2009

Lawmakers reject cost overrun on NDSU president's home

BISMARCK – North Dakota lawmakers rejected a $1.55 million cost overrun for a new home for North Dakota State University’s president, while approving a new president’s house at the University of North Dakota that went $363,000 over budget.

The votes on Tuesday have little practical effect. Both homes have long been finished, and the bills for constructing them have been paid. Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the House majority leader, said the actions by the Legislature’s interim Budget Section Committee were meaningless.

Other lawmakers said the debate underlined their anger at having their instructions ignored when the two schools disregarded $900,000 spending limits that the Legislature put on each of the projects.

The Board of Higher Education has ordered an audit and made a number of policy changes in response to the debacle. Board members have promised to keep lawmakers better informed about problems with future construction projects.

Reps. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, and Clark Williams, D-Wahpeton, said votes against the cost overruns would reflect public anger at the two universities’ apparent indifference to the spiraling costs.

“I don’t know what the consequence of this vote really is,” Williams said. “But I do know one thing – the people of North Dakota are upset by this situation ... and I am not going to put the stamp of approval on this, regardless of the consequence.”

The debate began on Tuesday when officials from the two universities asked legislators to retroactively approve spending $2.45 million on the NDSU president’s home – more than double its original cost – and $1.26 million on the UND home, which represented a 40 percent increase.

Lawmakers disapproved the NDSU cost overrun, 28-12, but endorsed the UND project, 27-14.

“What good does it do to approve anything if nobody listens to what we do anyway?” Sen. Bill Bowman, R-Bowman, asked Jim Miller, director of the NDSU Development Foundation and Bruce Frantz, NDSU’s facilities management director.

“You just kept adding, finding another reason to add more, to add more,” Bowman said. “It seems to me like all we’re doing is being a little puppet in this dog and pony show.”

Donations paid for most of the cost of the two homes. If a project that is financed by donated money is worth more than $385,000, North Dakota law requires colleges to get approval either from the Legislature or the Budget Section, an interim committee that includes legislative leaders and members of the appropriations committees of the North Dakota House and Senate.

Questions about spending on the NDSU house helped trigger the resignation of President Joseph Chapman, who left his job last month. Chapman and his wife, Gale, who was a member of a university committee that made spending decisions on the house, had pushed to have the home completed by last summer, which officials said drove up its cost.

Rep Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck, said the episode offered a poor example of business behavior for North Dakota college students.

“We teach architecture at (NDSU), we teach architectural management, we teach construction management, we teach business management,” Dosch said. “Is this what we’re teaching our kids, when they take a look at our president’s home, on our university campus, and we are saying, ‘Yes, this ... is how you conduct yourself?”‘

Carlson said it made no sense for lawmakers to approve the UND cost overrun while rejecting NDSU.

“Why did we pass for one, and not for the other one? Because they both did the same thing wrong,” Carlson said. “They both spent more money than they were told they could spend, and they both came back here begging for forgiveness.”

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