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Tu-Uyen Tran / Forum Communications Co., Published January 20 2011

Tailgating bill takes big hit from North Dakota House Education Committee

BISMARCK – A bill popularly conceived as a ban on tailgating at North Dakota universities got a big thumbs-down Wednesday from the House Education Committee.

Thirteen of 15 committee members recommended “do not pass” to fellow lawmakers, mostly because they didn’t feel the Legislature needed to get involved in issues that the universities seem able to handle on their own.

“You’re going to have to make that decision whether you think it’s the Legislature’s role to govern or micromanage our campuses,” Chairwoman RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, told the committee before the vote. “Perhaps this one is not worthy of our governance at this point. It does seem the campuses are handling this very well at this time.”

House Bill 1212, authored by Rep. Chuck Damschen, R-Hampden, would ban alcohol sale and use at venues hosting collegiate athletic events, including adjacent land that such venues may own, such as parking lots.

Damschen, defending his bill Tuesday, said he felt that athletic events and alcohol were tied too closely together in popular culture, which is unfair to young people. He targeted state universities, he said, because they get tax dollars.

Damschen wasn’t present at the Education Committee discussion of his bill Wednesday.

Of the two dissenting votes, Rep. Bob Hunskor, D-Newburg, agreed with that rationale but still wanted to offer some moral support to Damschen, who told the committee Tuesday that he’d gotten a lot of grief over it.

Rep. David Rust, R-Tioga, said he thinks underage drinking is a problem and this bill does a good job calling attention to it.

Sponsors of the bill include Damschen; Rep. Larry Bellew, R-Minot; and Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr.

Some state institutions, such as North Dakota State University, already ban alcohol in their venues, but allow at least tailgating. UND policy differs depending on the venue. It’s allowed in hockey games at Ralph Engelstad Arena, for example, but must stay in the Alerus Center’s concourse area during football games. Tailgating is allowed at both.

The motion to oppose the bill was made by Rep. Joe Heilman, R-Fargo, an NDSU graduate who represents the area around the university and the Fargodome, where Bison football games are played.

He, too, voiced moral support for Damschen but said the answer isn’t, essentially, to take away local control. NDSU and UND, the two state universities with big athletic programs, are handling alcohol policies properly, he said.

His main concern, though, was constituents were telling him that before NDSU allowed tailgating, there was always drinking nearby and, at game time, the fans would make a mad rush to the stadium, he said.

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, a UND alumnus representing a district that includes campus, said that when he was a student representative to the Legislature’s Youth Council, underage drinking was an issue, too, but the group concluded it’s a societal problem, not a legislative problem.

There are already laws forbidding those younger than 21 from drinking, he said. The group thought working with families was better than passing laws, he said.

Tran writes for the Grand Forks Herald