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An amendment was approved Wednesday to the state higher education budget providing funding for Higher Education Challenge Fund by conference committee members, who also made verbal agreements on a few items including annual tuition rate caps.

While progress was made, solutions were still elusive in completing work on Senate Bill 2003 on a few key areas. Issues requiring more in-depth discussions are levels of Student Loan Trust Fund dollars and capping annual Energy and Environmental Research Center reimbursement payments to the University of North Dakota for facility costs.

Sen. Karen Krebsbach, R-Minot, urged the committee to scrounge up some money for the Higher Education Challenge Fund.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a more successful program for higher education,” Krebsbach said.

The fund was created in 2013 and funded at $29 million and in the 2015 session at $23.5 million. The fund allows for the State Board of Higher Education to provide $1 for every $2 raised in non-public dollars in donations to college and university foundations. Funds are used for projects dedicated to advancing education.

By Wednesday afternoon, Krebsbach had her wish.

An afternoon amendment was introduced to bring the funding amount for 2017-19 from $0 to $3 million. It would come from $2 million in Student Loan Trust Fund dollars and $1 million in carryover dollars utilized for needs-based scholarships.

“That was easy,” committee chairman Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, quipped after the amendment was quickly approved by a 6-0 vote.

Areas that received verbal agreement during the committee’s morning meeting were annual tuition rate caps and on limiting what donor information state auditors could access when reviewing college and university foundations.

The Senate version of SB2003 caps tuition increases at 3 percent, with exceptions for the UND medical and law schools as well as the pharmacy college at North Dakota State University. The SBHE would be able to authorize an additional 1 percent increase if the institution requesting it does a $2 to $1 match for deferred maintenance as well as other capital needs.

By comparison, the House version sets a 4 percent annual cap on tuition with no limits placed on graduate programs and nonresident tuition rates.

“You cleaned it up,” Holmberg said after agreeing on the House version.

Conferees also agreed with a House amendment to block state auditors from having access to personal financial records of donors to college and university foundations.

“They wanted personal information from donors. That’s just outrageous,” said Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, adding that the change closes what the House considered a gap in state law.

One area of difference only briefly touched on Wednesday was funding to the Energy and Environmental Research Center for reimbursing UND for facility or administrative costs. The House version of SB2003 caps annual payments from EERC to the university at $500,000 annually while the Senate had no such language in its version.

The amount of Student Loan Trust Fund dollars to be authorized for residency positions at the UND School of Medicine was something the committee also wanted to discuss in more detail. The Senate agreed on $15.2 million in its version of SB2003 to only $11.8 million by the House.

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(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.)

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