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Conservation backers turn in petitions

BISMARCK -- A potentially expensive and contentious campaign over a proposed statewide conservation measure came one step closer to reality Monday when measure proponents submitted their petitions with signatures.

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The group’s filing with the North Dakota Secretary of State’s office comes prior to the deadline of midnight Wednesday to turn in petition signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks sponsoring committee chairman Steve Adair said 550 volunteers across the state gathered signatures.

A total of 1,970 petitions containing 41,136 signatures were turned in. Being a constitutional measure, 26,904 legitimate signatures are required. Whether the measure’s signatures are sufficient must be determined by Sept. 8.

The measure would create a Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Trust, setting aside 5 percent of the state’s oil extraction tax revenue annually for conservation.

Adair said the state is facing challenges stemming from unprecedented energy production as well as the losses of wildlife habitat and acreage converted to cropland.

He said the conservation fund is needed to preserve North Dakota’s natural resources and recreation areas in the current period of rapid growth and economic prosperity.

“Our state is in a position to address the needs of our schools, roads and other infrastructure and still fund conservation programs,” Adair said.

Group members have previously estimated the fund providing between $44 million and $100 million annually.

Measure opponents have disputed this, putting it closer to $300 million and $400 million per biennium. They’ve also argued it sets a negative precedent by putting a direct allocation of spending into the state constitution.

Adair said “we really don’t know” how much the fund would bring in. He added that funding for infrastructure comes from oil production taxes.

“This measure doesn’t touch that,” Adair said. “We certainly need to fund infrastructure, there’s no doubt about that.”

Lawmakers passed the North Dakota Outdoor Heritage Fund last session containing up to $15 million annually.

“It’s a good first step,” Adair said. “(But) it’s too small in scale and too small in scope.”

An ad campaign for the measure is already underway. What else will be done to push the measure is still being planned.

Jon Godfread, vice president of governmental affairs for the Greater North Dakota Chamber, disagreed with Adair’s take on the Outdoor Heritage Fund. He said if funding is insufficient it should be addressed during the 2015 legislative session.

Godfread said measure proponents have been using 2-year-old data in regard to the annual cost of the measure.

North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, the coalition opposing the measure, used a formula based on oil production, oil prices and tax rates to come up with its figure.

“We feel this is a conservative estimate of what the real cost of this measure would likely be,” Godfread said.

Godfread said the group will now begin talks on ramping up its campaign against the measure. A $100,000 ad buy was already made against the measure in June. He anticipates it being difficult going dollar for dollar against the measure’s proponents, who he said are receiving funds from out of state groups.

During the June 10 primary, volunteers with North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks also were accused of violating election law. North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation alleged that measure volunteers had attempted to gather signatures in several places around the state from within the 100-foot buffer from the entrance to a polling location.

A violation of the Corrupt Practices Act is a Class A misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail, a $3,000 fine or both.

Godfread said educating the public on what the conservation measure would do should be enough to win the day in November.

“When people really know what this is about, generally they come our way,” Godfread said.