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Oil money prompts poll showdown

By Staff | Sep 6, 2013

North Dakota voters will participate in a showdown with the Legislature over oil money in the general election November, 2014.

One hundred years ago 1914 voters assumed authority to initiate laws, to refer acts of the legislature, and to propose constitutional amendments.

The proposals were put on the ballot by a belligerent legislature. Under the 1914 provisions, the legislature got the last word on any proposals. Then in 1918 the legislature substantially liberalized the provisions to the simplified processes we have today.

Legislators have always disliked the initiative and referral. They have tried to curb these powers on a regular basis. So it should have been no surprise when the 2013 session proposed a constitutional amendment to restrict the authority of the people to initiate measures dealing with appropriations.

Their proposed constitutional amendment for 2014 states that a petition may not be approved for circulation that would “make a direct appropriation of public funds for a specific purpose or would require the legislative assembly to appropriate funds for a specific purpose.”

As the state treasury bulges with oil money, the Legislature is worried that citizen groups will be tempted to launch initiative campaigns to appropriate funds for pet projects.

Here come the conservation and wildlife groups with a measure on the very same ballot in November 2014 to appropriate around $44 million yearly from the oil extraction tax for a broad conservation program.

To buy off the measure’s sponsors, the 2013 Legislature authorized an “Outdoor Heritage Fund” of around $15 million annually from the oil and gas production tax for conservation and wildlife.

But this fell far short of the expectations of the conservation groups. So they are taking the issue directly to the people.

So we will have two measures on the ballot one from the Legislature forbidding petitions that take money out of the treasury and one from citizens taking money out of the state treasury.

If both measures are approved in the 2014 election, someone will have to decide which one (or perhaps both) prevails.

There is a little irony here. The oil revenue being protected by the Legislature wouldn’t exist if it had not been for an initiated measure sponsored by citizens.

Until 1980, the state tax on oil and gas production was a meager five percent. When the Legislature refused to act, citizens conducted a successful petition drive to impose an additional six and a half per cent “oil extraction” tax.

The additional tax passed by a vote of 57 percent (163,991) to 43 percent (125,131).

If the extraction tax had not been initiated, we would not have any surplus oil money to fight over.

In North Dakota, it is obvious that our Legislature is still smarting over its defeat on the tobacco issue wherein citizens initiated a measure that forced the Legislature to spend some of the tobacco settlement to fight smoking.

The big question involved in the 2014 showdown is whether or not the priorities of the Legislature are the priorities of the citizenry. Or will the judgment of the Legislature’s management of the oil money be challenged regularly by organizations that feel the Legislature is off track?

If the Legislature’s proposal is defeated and the wildlife initiative is approved, it could be a green light for other organizations that think their needs are being overlooked.

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