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University officials urge bill veto at expense of lost funds

April 30, 2021 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The North Dakota Board of Higher Education and the university system chancellor want Gov. Doug Burgum to veto a bill that would prevent a school from funneling grant money to a person or organization that promotes or performs abortions.

University system officials said academic freedom and other factors outweigh the loss of so-called Challenge Grant funds that are authorized in the bill and would be lost if it is vetoed.

“Regrettably, the 11 colleges and universities of the NDUS recommend veto ... based on the legal risks, fiscal penalties, and peripheral consequences associated with the bill,” Board chairman Nick Hacker and Chancellor Mark Hagerott wrote in a letter to Burgum Thursday.

The Republican-led North Dakota Legislature passed the legislation that was primarily aimed at preventing North Dakota State University from funneling grant money to Planned Parenthood for sex education in the state.

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The bill says any institution that enters into a contract with “a person that performs or promotes the performance of an abortion” would have its operating budget cut by 2.5%. The school official signing the contract also would face a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.

The sanction would mean a $2.8 million blow to the Fargo-based research university.

The $250,000 annual grant to the university comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NDSU President Dean Bresciani has said the grant expires in September and won’t be renewed, but not because of the Legislature’s threat of sanctions.

Bresciani said that he won’t bow to political pressure or proposed sanctions against the school for having ties to Planned Parenthood. He called it “a matter of academic freedom.”

But also he said the faculty member who heads the program “is moving on to other things.”

Republican Sen. Janne Myrdal of Edinburg, one of the Legislature’s most ardent anti-abortion lawmakers has said NDSU officials have “ignored” lawmakers’ concerns with the school’s relationship with Planned Parenthood. Two years ago, nearly 90 lawmakers in the Republican-led Legislature wrote an open letter to NDSU President Dean Bresciani asking him to do so.

While Planned Parenthood is the United States’ largest single provider of reproductive health services, including abortion, it does not have any health centers or provide abortions in North Dakota. The sole clinic providing abortions in the state is the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo.

The bill appropriates $11.1 million from the state’s General Fund for the Challenge Grant program that’s used at all schools for such things as scholarships and research. The money is matched two-to-one with private or other funds.

The Senate passed the bill, 35-11. The GOP-led House passed the measure 66-25.

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Burgum, a Republican, NDSU alum and former Bison cheerleader, has been put in a tough spot over the bill. Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor’s office has been flooded with calls and emails either to sign the bill or veto it.

“We have received a lot of input from all sides,” Nowatzki said Friday.

The bill was sent to Burgum this week. The governor normally has three days to act on a bill but the Legislature adjourned early Friday. Burgum now has about two weeks to decide since the Legislature is no longer in session.