No Taxpayer Dollars For Private University Foundations

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Yesterday the legislature heard from the alumni of several of the state’s universities speaking in favor of legislation providing matching tax dollars for contributions made to the university foundations.

“House Bill 1204 would contribute $1 from the state for every $2 generated by the foundations,” reports the Grand Forks Herald. “There would be a cap of $10 million in matching grants for the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University and $1 million for the other nine campuses.”

This would be problematic in a major way.

First, these funds aren’t transparent. Coincidentally, I had put in an open records request for financial statements from the North Dakota University System foundation and was told by Director of Communications Linda Donlin that the records aren’t public. “Please note those records are not subject to North Dakota’s Open Records Law because the foundation is not a public entity as defined at N.D.C.C. 44-04-17.1,” Donlin wrote me in an email citing NDUS’ general counsel. “It is a private, non-profit foundation that carries out non-governmental functions and is funded by private contributions.”

Are the taxpayers to be expected to dump money into these slush funds without any way for the public to see how the money is being handled?

Second, it seems to me that the legislature already spends money in support of the universities. These are called appropriations. The university foundations are supposed to exist to provide additional revenues for the universities in addition to what taxpayers fork over and students pay. The foundations, in fact, are supposed to help defray the cost of the universities for both taxpayers in students. Unfortunately, it seems they’re more often used to pay for perks for university administrators, or for decidedly non-academic purposes such as sports programs. Regardless, pouring taxpayer money into these foundations would defeat the purpose of the foundations.

Third, let’s remember that foundation money has in the past been used for explicitly political purposes. During the food-fight over the Fighting Sioux nickname funds from the UND foundation were used in a deep-pockets campaign against nickname supporters. State law defines supporting or opposing initiated measures as a political purpose. In the future, would these funds be used for additional political purposes? Probably so. Perhaps especially so given the aforementioned problems with transparency.

North Dakota’s universities are lavishly financed by the taxpayers already, what with the university system having enjoyed a 150% increase in funding since the 2003-05 biennium (assuming Governor Dalrymple’s budget recommendations for the coming biennium pass).

There is no need to funnel additional money into these foundations. The legislature should support the universities through appropriations, and we can have a debate about how much appropriation is prudent, but giving money to these foundations would be an extremely inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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