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Secretary of state approves petition for conservation fund

BISMARCK -- The group wanting voters to change the state constitution to take a slice of oil taxes and put it toward conservation can start collecting signatures to put it on the November 2014 ballot.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger approved the Clean Water, Wildlife and Park Coalition's petition for circulation Thursday.

Coalition Chairman Steve Adair said the group is ready to collect the required 26,904 signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot and amend the state constitution.

He said the coalition, which has been recruiting volunteers, has a process in place to train volunteers on the rules of collecting signatures, such as a new requirement to have an eligible voter print and sign the petition.

"The plan is to collect all, if not a vast majority, through a small army of volunteers across the state," he said.

The petition's sponsoring committee is mainly made up of Bismarck-area residents, with a few from Grand Forks, Dickinson and Valley City.

Adair said the coalition wants the issue on the November 2014 general election ballot, which will require the signatures to be submitted by Aug. 6.

Adair said he's not worried about failing to collect all the signatures, as internal polling shows many North Dakotans agree with the issue.

"More North Dakotans are in favor of making this investment," he said in an interview. "I'm very confident people around the state are very interested in this issue, and I think this measure is very responsive to public opinion."

If approved, a Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Trust would be added to the state constitution and take effect Jan. 1, 2015.

The measure would set aside 5 percent of the oil extraction tax, which would raise an estimated $150 million during the 2013-15 biennium, according to state projections for the tax.

The fund would be governed by a Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Commission composed of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner.

The commission would administer grants to state agencies, tribal governments, local governments and nonprofit organizations to protect and maintain water, improve natural flood control, protect or create wildlife and fish habitat, and conserve or acquire natural areas.

A Citizen Accountability Board would review grant applications. The board would then provide recommendations to the commission.

If passed, voters would be able to come back to the ballot every 25 years to vote on whether to keep the fund.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.