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Kyle Potter, Published September 14 2013

Alumni, donors and powerbrokers form Bison Caucus to influence legislation

Fargo - The most influential backers of North Dakota State University may not be its fanatic football fans or team boosters, but a network of alumni, donors and Fargo-area powerbrokers who contact state lawmakers to make the university’s case on pending legislation.

They call themselves the Bison Caucus.

They are not lobbyists in the traditional sense. No one from the group is registered as a lobbyist with the state, and most caucus members refer to themselves as private citizens with a common interest in seeing NDSU succeed.

Still, university president Dean Bresciani has referred to the caucus in emails as a “legislative lobbying” group. He and others coordinated with the caucus throughout the past session, show emails obtained by The Forum.

And last session was a big one for NDSU. With the Bison Caucus prodding state lawmakers for support, the school scored two major victories this year: $28.1 million for a new building on campus and a revamped funding formula for the state’s 11 public colleges and universities.

School administrators testify in committee after committee as each legislative session marches on, but Sen. Tim Flakoll, a Fargo Republican and adviser to the caucus, said the Bison Caucus brings a different voice of support to the table.

“When you learn that it’s important to this company and that company … it really helps people recognize that these are issues that don’t just impact one community. They have a statewide value,” he said.

Or, as Bison Caucus Chairwoman Connie Nicholas put it: “We’re kind of a surrogate for NDSU.”

A call to arms

It starts with a call to arms, like this portion of an April 9 email to the caucus.

“We need your immediate help!” Nicholas wrote in bold about the North Dakota House’s education funding bill.

Nicholas warned that the bill would “gut the higher education formula ... and dramatically change the funding of Higher Ed in ND,” before listing the 20-plus House members who needed a phone call from the Bison Caucus or its friends. She also laid out a set of talking points to explain to legislators why the governor’s proposed funding formula – which would switch school funding to a system based on credit hours completed rather than enrollment – was a better model.

The bill was eventually changed to include the new funding formula and was signed into law, increasing NDSU’s state appropriation by 24 percent for the new biennium.

Sen. Tony Grindberg, another Fargo Republican and adviser to the group, said the final product contained “95 percent of what (the Bison Caucus) intended.”

The Bison Caucus is an offshoot of the NDSU Alumni Association and the NDSU Development Foundation, groups that do university fundraising.

Nicholas, a 1970 NDSU alumna with a history of political involvement as a committeewoman for the Republican National Committee, said she was asked to lead the Bison Caucus in time for the 2011 legislative session.

But the group has stayed off the radar. Aside from a reception to meet legislators and kick off this year’s session, members generally work by phone or computer, on their own dime and time.

“We try not to make a fuss,” Nicholas said.

In one of the few times the caucus has been mentioned in public, NDSU President Bresciani in his 2011 State of the University address praised the group for its work in the 2011 legislative session.

“NDSU alumni, friends and statewide business leaders articulated their support of NDSU through the new ‘Bison Caucus,’ ” he said. “Within a few short months of forming, the Caucus became an effective influence in the legislative process.”

NDSU officials deferred questions on this story to its Development Foundation.

Business backers

So who’s in the Bison Caucus?

The Development Foundation did not respond to several requests for a copy of the group’s membership.

Nicholas sent her April 9 plea to several heavy-hitters in Fargo-Moorhead business: the presidents of the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corp. and the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo Chamber of Commerce; the wives and siblings as well as the leaders of Scheels All Sports; the Kilbourne Group led by Doug Burgum; Gate City Bank CEO Steve Swiontek; and William C. Marcil, chairman of Forum Communications, which owns The Forum and three other daily newspapers in North Dakota. Gov. Jack Dalrymple even received the email.

Nicholas said she’s not just coordinating with business leaders, but with NDSU graduates and their families across North Dakota. Their goal, she said, is to “inform, educate and maintain connections” with legislators – not just for NDSU causes, but for higher education in North Dakota as a whole. She said none of them are paid.

Nicholas and lawmakers involved with the group stressed the Bison Caucus is one of many groups of concerned individuals involved in Bismarck.

But others acknowledge that the group is well-organized, ready to hit the phones and make the university’s case to state legislators when the school itself cannot.

“The university is somewhat limited in their ability to do that,” Flakoll said.

At the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, there are some alumni who call up state lawmakers, UND Foundation spokesman Milo Smith said, but there’s not a group that compares to the Bison Caucus.

At least for now.

In a Feb. 6 email to Nicholas and other school and Development Foundation officials, Bresciani floated the idea of collaborating with UND on “legislative lobbying.”

UND’s Smith said he had not heard of that prospect.

A lobbyist or not?

Just because someone is lobbying lawmakers doesn’t make the person a lobbyist in the eyes of state law, which defines lobbying as any attempt to secure the passage or defeat of legislation or to influence legislative management.

But Secretary of State Al Jaeger said the key to being a lobbyist – and needing to register with his office – is whether that person is lobbying on behalf of an organization or institution.

Based on his understanding of the Bison Caucus, that’s likely not the case.

“There are countless organizations who encourage their members to inundate Congress with their position on certain things. They’re really just trying to get the faithful to make it known,” he said.

“If that’s being done in a matter where the individuals themselves are doing it,” Jaeger added, “that’s probably not lobbying.”

NDSU does not have a paid lobbyist registered with the secretary of state’s office, nor do any of North Dakota’s 10 other public colleges and universities.

Rep. Nancy Johnson, a Fargo Republican and Bison Caucus member, said she didn’t believe any members should be considered lobbyists because no one is paid.

Take Jeff Volk, an NDSU graduate, CEO of West Fargo-based Moore Engineering Inc. and Bison Caucus member.

Volk said he started to get involved with the caucus this past session, monitoring legislative developments, making phone calls and the occasional trip to Bismarck – often in conjunction with his own business.

Though there were several email blasts from Nicholas to galvanize caucus members, Volk said: “I just kind of did it on my own.”

Rep. Kathy Hawken, a Fargo Republican and another caucus adviser, said much of the Bison Caucus efforts were to reach out to legislators outside the Fargo area.

“We’re the choir,” she said of Fargo-area legislators. “They don’t need to spend a lot of time with us.”

‘Watching what they do’

Though not explicitly linked to the school or its administration, Bresciani and other NDSU officials weighed in on caucus matters and kept their eyes on developments in Bismarck throughout the session, emails show.

Bresciani weighed in on Nicholas’ first draft of a Bison Caucus newsletter for legislators. In a Dec. 18 email, Bresciani told Nicholas it would be “advantageous for me to remain ‘separate’ from the Caucus.”

The president also drafted a letter to several Fargo- and Bismarck-area legislators in late March as the debate began heating up about requiring NDSU to stop using its Development Foundation’s plane.

“I’m making an unusual gesture of contacting you,” his draft began, before outlining his objections to the bill and asking the lawmakers for their support.

Bresciani sent that draft to Bruce Bollinger, NDSU’s vice president for finance and administration, who recommended he hold off on sending it.

“We should bring this up tomorrow during the Bison Caucus meeting,” Bollinger wrote back.

A bill requiring the school to discontinue leasing the private airplane from the NDSU Foundation eventually passed. The foundation announced this week that it had a potential deal lined up to sell the plane to Scheels All Sports.

Several lawmakers involved with the caucus said the group did not get involved on the airplane issue. Their primary focus, Volk said, was funding.

On March 15, Volk forwarded Bresciani an email from West Fargo-area Rep. Alon Wieland, who criticized growth and spending in North Dakota higher education.

“This is JUST EXACTLY the type of thing the Caucus needs to confront, politely and helpfully – but vigorously,” Bresciani responded, copying in Nicholas. “State legislators and especially FARGO representatives need to be confronted when misinformed, and made aware that business and community leaders are now watching what they do.”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502