Education groups join push against outdoor fund
BISMARCK — If petitions delivered to state officials Monday check out, North Dakota voters will vote this fall on a politically divisive proposal to set aside some oil-tax money to protect natural areas and wildlife.
Members of North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks delivered petitions with more than 41,000 signatures Monday to the Secretary of State’s Office, petitions seeking to put a proposed amendment to the state constitution on the Nov. 4 ballot. Backers needed 26,904 signatures.
The petitions still need to be validated. The deadline for verification in Sept. 8.
The proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment would set aside 5 percent of the state’s oil extraction tax revenues for outdoor needs, starting in the next biennium.
“We have a unique opportunity to invest a small portion of the funds the oil industry is already paying to our state, without raising taxes, to protect the things that make North Dakota, North Dakota,” said Steve Adair, director of Ducks Unlimited — Great Plains Region, who is chairman of the committee sponsoring the measure.
A widespread coalition is opposing the proposed fund, including business and agricultural groups.
At least two statewide education groups are also against the proposal: the North Dakota Council of Education Leaders and the North Dakota School Boards Association.
However, North Dakota United, which represents most of the state’s teachers and many state, county and local municipal employees, is neutral on the issue, that group’s president said.
The required set-aside has been estimated at $300 million for the coming biennium, but could go as high as $400 million, said Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo.
“In this economic environment, $300 million is still a boatload of money,” which would no longer be available for schools, roads or social services, said Flakoll, chairman of the Interim Education Funding Committee.
“I get pretty protective of education issues because I realize the long-term value,” Flakoll said.
A spokeswoman for Ducks Unlimited questioned Flakoll’s estimate of the set-aside, saying the Office of Management and Budget has estimated that it would be closer to $150 million over the biennium.
That number is based on the April 2013 legislative forecast for the 2013-15 biennium.
“We can do all of these things and do them well” with the current budget situation, said Carmen Miller, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited — Great Plains Region.
Aimee Copas, executive director of North Dakota Council of Education Leaders, said the set-aside for the outdoors fund would come off the top of North Dakota’s total tax revenues, leaving schools to compete with a wide range of other interests for a smaller pool of money.
The amendment, could “do some detrimental damage to the budgets” of many groups, including K-12 schools, Copas said Monday. “It could potentially take quite a bit of money off the table that could support our kids. We just simply can’t support that way of doing things.”
Jon Martinson, executive director of the North Dakota School Board’s Association, said the group balked at the potential size of the conservation fund.
“My role is to advocate for education and education funding,” Martinson said. “The amount of money, I think, is just an incredible amount.”
Martinson said the state already has a number of groups that spend money on outdoors issues, including the Game and Fish and Parks and Recreation department, soil conservation districts and the $30 million allocated for the Outdoor Heritage Fund.
Martinson said school enrollment has not just been jumping in the western Oil Patch but around the state. Those students have to be funded, he said.
“If you take $300 million off the top, we’re concerned where we have to be,” Martinson said. “Our needs are increasing as well.”
Union stays neutral
Nearly every member of North Dakota United’s 20-member board voted to remain neutral on the amendment after hearing presentations from both sides, President Nick Archuleta said.
Archuleta said board members felt it was too early in the debate to make a decision. The board also didn’t have a good idea of the general feeling of the membership of the labor group, made up mostly of teachers and other public employees.
“We’re just going to wait and see how it goes,” Archuleta said. “Both sides were happy to see us take a neutral stance.”
Miller said teachers throughout the state would benefit from the outdoors amendment.
“The proposed fund has a very specific outdoor education component,” Miller said.
Supporters of the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment include some big hitters in the conservation world, including Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, The Nature Conservancy, The National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society.
In all, there are than 90 endorsing organizations, plus individuals and businesses from throughout North Dakota, and the list is growing, Miller said.
“Main Street North Dakota loves this measure,” she said.
A campaign against the proposal, North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, says groups opposing the amendment include the state Chamber of Commerce and the chambers of several of the state’s largest cities, including the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck-Mandan, Minot and Williston.
Agricultural group opposition includes the North Dakota Farmers Union, North Dakota Farm Bureau, North Dakota Farm Credit Council, grain, corn, soybean and ranchers’ groups and the Ethanol Producers Association.
The North Dakota League of Cities and the North Dakota Association of Counties also stand in opposition, along with groups representing implement dealers, motor carriers, builders, the oil, gas, coal and petroleum industries, Realtors, landowners, utility shareholders and credit unions.