Sides debate ND conservation measure at Chamber summit
BISMARCK — Supporters and opponents of a proposed ballot measure that would funnel millions of North Dakota oil tax dollars into a conservation fund locked horns in their first public debate Wednesday, arguing the fund’s cost, governance and potential impacts to farmers and ranchers.
Sponsors of the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks constitutional amendment turned in more than 41,000 signatures last week to try to put the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. The secretary of state’s office has until Sept. 8 to determine whether they gathered the necessary 26,904 signatures of qualified voters.
The amendment would create a fund and trust that would receive 5 percent of the state’s share of oil extraction tax revenue for the next 25 years.
Dan Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, which is one of more than 30 voting members of the North Dakota Ag Coalition opposing the measure, characterized it as a money grab by conservation groups.
“This isn’t about conservation. This measure isn’t about wildlife habitat,” he said. “It’s all about the money.”
Carmen Miller, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited’s Great Plains Regional Office in Bismarck, said the state is in a unique opportunity to set aside a “small portion” of existing oil tax revenue for things important to North Dakota, including parks, natural flood control and hunting and fishing access.
“These are things that are critical to our quality of life,” she said.
Ten percent of the revenue would go into the trust and 90 percent into the fund. A 13-member advisory board would review grant applications and make recommendations to the state Industrial Commission, comprised of the state’s governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner.
Jon Godfread of the Greater North Dakota Chamber —which hosted Wednesday’s debate at the Radisson Hotel and is spearheading the Common Sense Conservation group opposing the measure —criticized the amendment’s requirement that at least 75 percent of the revenue deposited into the fund be spent every year. He said it would tie the Industrial Commission’s hands and would be the first time a spending mandate was put into the state constitution.
“We think that’s bad public policy and very dangerous public policy,” he said.
Steven Adair, chairman of the sponsoring committee for the measure, clarified that the amendment requires 75 percent of the fund to be “allocated” every year, and that if there aren’t enough worthy projects to support, money could be allocated from the fund to the trust.
“And that is not the same as spending,” he said, drawing some snickers from the chamber-friendly crowd.
The two sides again challenged each other’s estimates of how much the fund would collect, with opponents claiming it would collect $150 million annually and supporters saying it would draw about half that much. Miller said that even if it’s more, the fund is based on a percentage of oil tax revenue, so there’ll also be more revenue to meet other needs in the state.
Asked why the proposed measure didn’t include legislative oversight, Miller noted the 13-member advisory group would include four state lawmakers, and that reports on the fund’s activity would be made to the state House and Senate every session.
“A report to the Legislature isn’t oversight,” Godfread retorted, adding the Legislature will have to make tough decisions about funding priorities, such as education, if the measure passes.
Wogsland said the fund would “hamstring” farmers and ranchers by putting conservation groups in competition with current landowners for farmland.
“North Dakota agricultural interests don’t trust you,” he said.
Miller said North Dakota’s laws regarding farmland acquisition by nonprofit groups are “very restrictive” and require the governor’s approval.
“This does nothing to change that,” she said.
Nowatzki is a reporter for Forum News Service. Contact him at 701-255-5607 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.