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Published August 13 2013

Forum editorial: Outdoors initiative might fly

The attempt to revive a North Dakota conservation initiative underscores the perception that the 2013 Legislature did not do enough to safeguard the state’s outdoor heritage and environment from unprecedented incursions from oil development. Conservation advocates want to set aside a significant portion of booming oil revenues for an outdoor heritage fund. If polls of public sentiment over several years are any indication, the drive to put the constitutional amendment on the November 2014 ballot will succeed.

A similar campaign failed in 2012 because of fraud associated with petition signatures. Sponsors of the new amendment won’t let that happen again.

Moreover, the new plan is more palatable because it would set aside 5 percent from the oil extraction tax, not the production tax. Under that scenario, an outdoor heritage fund would not siphon revenues from the share reserved for local communities in oil country. The new measure would have no impact on any other funds or appropriations specific to oil impact funding.

The amendment would generate an estimated $150 million per biennium, according to 2013-15 projections.

The Legislature passed an Outdoor Heritage Fund that was projected to raise $30 million a biennium by setting aside 4 percent of 1 percent of the oil and gas gross production tax. But a fiscal note predicts the fund will collect far less – about $17.6 million for the biennium. That’s a start, although the fund’s advisory board is weighted to industry and farm interests. The new amendment would establish a board with a majority of conservation and outdoors representation, which makes sense, since the purpose of the fund would be to protect habitat, wetlands and those places that make North Dakota’s landscapes and waterways unique.

It’s always iffy to amend the state Constitution for matters that seem to be the purview of the Legislature. But North Dakotans (after two tries) established the Legacy Fund by constitutional amendment to reserve what looks to be billions of oil and gas dollars for the future. Also, using other ballot means, such as referral and initiative, voters have in effect chastised lawmakers for failing to act. The most recent examples were a measure to force changes at the state workers compensation agency, and to impose statewide restrictions on smoking and secondhand smoke. Legislators often are captives of well-heeled special interests. Voters tend to be ahead of their “representatives” on important social, public health and revenue issues.

Sponsors of the conservation amendment expect to collect 40,000 signatures starting in September in order to get it on the November ballot. Given what’s happening in oil country, they can make the case for a constitutionally protected conservation fund. And if it does get on the ballot, the measure has a very good chance of winning voter approval.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.