Governor unveils $80M plan for parks, conservation as alternative to ballot measure
BISMARCK - Gov. Jack Dalrymple rolled out a plan Monday to spend more than $80 million on state parks and conservation efforts as a "sound and balanced" alternative to a November ballot measure that would establish a conservation fund supported b...
BISMARCK – Gov. Jack Dalrymple rolled out a plan Monday to spend more than $80 million on state parks and conservation efforts as a “sound and balanced” alternative to a November ballot measure that would establish a conservation fund supported by oil tax revenue.
“In my opinion, this is a better way to go,” he said.
The governor’s plan calls on lawmakers to approve one-time spending of $30.4 million to build new campsites, cabins, roads and trails and convert about 200 acres of state-owned land near the Missouri River Correctional Center south of Bismarck into a day park with public access to the river.
He also proposes raising the cap on the new Outdoor Heritage Fund from $30 million this biennium to $50 million in 2015-2017 and adjusting the formula so the fund, which is supported by tax revenue from oil and gas production, reaches its maximum level.
Dalrymple’s alternative plan isn’t the first to arise as debate has heated up over Measure 5, the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks constitutional amendment that would channel 5 percent of the state’s share of oil extraction tax revenue into a fund and trust over the next 25 years.
House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said earlier this month that he and Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, plan to introduce legislation next year that would spend $30 million to $50 million to enhance parks and other recreational opportunities.
Carmen Miller, a Measure 5 spokeswoman and director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited’s regional office in Bismarck, said Monday that measure backers were “thrilled to see the governor and others recognizing the need for this type of critical quality of life infrastructure.”
“It looks to me and kind of sounds like the governor is validating what we’ve been saying for three years,” she said.
North Dakota added about 78,000 residents between 2004 and 2013, putting pressure on a state parks system that Parks and Recreation Department Director Mark Zimmerman said has already set a record of 67,641 camper nights this year.
Measure 5 proponents, who gathered more than 41,000 signatures to get the initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot, have pointed out that North Dakota hasn’t added a state park since the 1980s and that its 14,224 acres of state park land in 2010-2011 were fewer than any other state except Rhode Island, according to a report by the National Association of State Park Directors.
All 13 state parks and one recreation area would benefit under Dalrymple’s proposal, which would add 180 new campsites to the park system’s existing 1,271 sites.
Asked if he would have proposed the funding increase if not for Measure 5, Dalrymple said, “I think I would have, and no one will ever know whether that’s true or not. But the fact of the matter is all of these plans have been master-planned in the past.”
Dalrymple said he expects a lot of discussion and questions from lawmakers, “but I think the package will hold up very well.” Porter, appearing with Dalrymple at Monday’s press conference at the Capitol, said their two proposals fit well together.
Measure 5 opponents have criticized the amendment as too costly and vague and driven by out-of-state interests. North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, a coalition of more than 60 business, agriculture, industry and government associations opposing the amendment, noted last week that the measure would create the sixth-highest-funded state agency, based on general fund appropriations for the current two-year cycle.
A preliminary revenue forecast released last month estimated the fund and trust would collect $49 million in the last six months of the current biennium and $259 million in 2015-17. At least 75 percent of the revenue deposited into the fund would have to be allocated every year.
The high-stakes measure has spurred an expensive ad campaign by both sides.
Coalition spokesman Jon Godfread, vice president of governmental affairs for the Greater North Dakota Chamber, said the group has raised about $700,000 and spent $500,000 on their campaign. That doesn’t include more than $1 million the American Petroleum Institute contributed to the cause within the last two weeks, according to campaign disclosure reports filed with the secretary of state.
“They represent the North Dakota energy industry, and they’re here working to keep the money flowing to North Dakota’s education system and tax relief,” Godfread said.
Measure 5 sponsors wouldn’t say how much they have raised and spent so far. Disclosure reports show Ducks Unlimited alone has reported independent expenditures of about $1.4 million since June 4, including nearly $340,000 marked as in support of Measure 5 since it was accepted for the ballot Sept. 6.
Godfread said measure opponents have known all along they “weren’t going to come close” to the $2.5 million to $4 million they expect proponents to spend on their campaign. But he said as more people have become engaged in the issue, “We’re feeling pretty good.
“I think the average North Dakotan is coming to see just how much this is,” he said.
Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .