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Signature fraud rescues resource proposal

By Staff | Sep 16, 2012

Alleged fraud in the collection of signatures has rescued the initiated measure to divert state oil revenue to natural resources programs from the November 6th ballot.

The measure was removed when it appeared that thousands of signatures were improperly entered on the petitions by paid circulators.

The measure would have created a 9-member Clean Water, Lands and Outdoor Heritage Board to finance natural resource projects for various governmental and nonprofit organizations, using five percent of the state’s oil revenue.

Advocates of the proposal explained that they were initiating the measure because “North Dakota state government has not been inclined to address this critical issue.so the measure was written to ensure that the will of the voters is not subverted by the legislature.”

When the petitions were first circulated, sponsors expected that five percent of the oil revenue would yield $50 million annually for their projects. As the development of the Bakken field continued, however, that estimate ballooned to $85 million. By the first of the year, it could be well over $100 million. And even more in the future.

With the measure removed from the ballot, the sponsors may have dodged defeat at the polls. They now have time to strengthen their case and review provisions of their constitutional amendment that could have been fatal.

First of all, it must be conceded that the state has been negligent when it comes to natural resource protection and development. On this issue, the sponsors may have had a point, but would they have had a case?

It is indisputable that North Dakota has been extremely active in water development all across the state, providing capital funds for building and expanding water systems. But this has been done only because of the availability of vast sums of federal money, much of it from earmarking by the state’s Congressional delegation.

To make their case for more state funding, the sponsors would be well-advised to appear at the next legislative session and ask for the funding they feel is necessary. If the Legislature turns a deaf ear, then the sponsors could go back to the voters with proof that the Legislature is neglecting the state’s natural resources.

Giving the Legislature an opportunity to redeem itself is important. We learned in the fight over the $800 million the state won in its suit against the tobacco industry that the Legislature gets vindictive when it is bypassed.

When the Legislature started spending the tobacco money on everything except tobacco programs, a committee successfully initiated a measure in 2008 calling for a committee and an appropriation to fight tobacco use.

Because it was bypassed, the 2009 legislature threw a tantrum and waited until the waning hours of the session to grudgingly pass the implementing legislation.

By giving the Legislature a clear opportunity to fund natural resource development and protection, it would have little reason to fight an initiated measure intending to do what they refused to do.

Another embarrassment avoided by the removal of the measure from the ballot is the amount of money represented by five percent of the oil revenue. It would have been easy to defend a request for $55 million but virtually impossible to get the voters to approve an annual take of $100 million.

There is no doubt that the sponsors are disappointed that their proposal has been sidetracked. All facts considered, it wouldn’t have had a chance of passage. Supporters now have an opportunity to consider revising the proposal and make it more salable in a hard-fought campaign.

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