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Gov. Doug Burgum, right, and state officials join in a round of applause Friday, April 26, 2019, as Secretary of State Al Jaeger, left, certifies Senate Bill Bill 2001 into law at an official bill signing ceremony in Memorial Hall of the state Capitol in Bismarck. The bill authorizes a $50 million endowment for the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Medora. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

Wheels already in motion on Theodore Roosevelt presidential library

BISMARCK — North Dakota state officials already took steps to establish the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum before a citizen group filed a petition seeking to overturn legislative approval for the project.

Lawmakers this year approved the creation of a $50 million endowment to operate and maintain the facility but required that $100 million in private donations be raised for construction. The library funding provisions were passed with an emergency clause, meaning they took effect immediately.

Office of Management and Budget Director Joe Morrissette said Tuesday, May 28, that $15 million was transferred from the state's general fund to the endowment at the beginning of the month. But Gov. Doug Burgum's spokesman said he hasn't yet taken out a $35 million loan from the state-owned bank, which was included in the funding plan.

A group of North Dakotans filed a petition Friday afternoon seeking to repeal the library project through the ballot box. Backers would need more than 13,000 signatures by late July to send the question to voters.

Riley Kuntz of Dickinson, who's chairing the petition's sponsoring committee, said the money could have been better used on things like education and suggested the ballot proposal would send a message to the Legislature. He said organizers plan to put the question on the June 2020 primary election ballot.

Kuntz is also pursuing two other proposals to repeal restrictions on the state auditor and a measure further shielding lawmaker communications from public view.

Burgum stood by his most public legislative initiative in a statement issued Tuesday morning.

“An overwhelming majority of the Legislature — as well as the state’s tourism industry, congressional delegation, former governors, Dickinson, Medora, Dickinson State University and many others — agreed that this world-class destination will be an economic and tourism boon for North Dakota, celebrating the legacy of a great leader who transformed himself in the Badlands and went on to transform our nation and world as president," the Republican governor said.

Burgum's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said there have been "verbal commitments" for more than half of the $100 million required by lawmakers. He said plans for the library are moving forward for now, noting that nothing yet has been put on the ballot.

A message left for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation was not immediately returned.

Burgum's office noted that most of the $15 million transferred to the endowment was previously designated for a presidential library and argued the project's funding structure means it doesn't "compete" with appropriations in the 2019-21 budget cycle.

The Legislature's Republican majority leaders said Tuesday they haven't heard complaints about the library funding since the session ended late last month.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, who voted against the library funding, said she hadn't seen the repeal petition. But she said people in her district have raised concerns about the project's price tag.

"There are plenty of needs out there in the state of North Dakota for $50 million," Heckaman said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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