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Omdahl: Honest discussion about conservation measures

By Staff | Apr 25, 2014

If conservation groups follow through on plans to file initiative petitions by August 21, North Dakota voters will decide whether or not an estimated $100 million of the oil extraction tax (five percent) should be diverted annually to a special fund for a variety of conservation programs.

Even before the petitions have been filed, the proposed measure has been a subject of considerable controversy. Around 25 state organizations have mobilized to oppose the measure in case it appears on the ballot.

As usual in most arguments over ballot measures, the proposal has been the subject of unfounded speculation. The issue deserves more honest discussion.

In the first place, the critics are not without self-interest. The public education organizations are opposed because they want a larger share of the oil revenue; the business organizations have an ideological bent against public spending; the farm organizations are worried about land prices; the oil interests hope to get a tax cut, and the local governments want state support.

The conservation groups see the decline in wildlife habitat with the drastic cut in conservation reserve acreage. With high commodity prices, farmers have been converting more and more land to planting. They also cite a number of other needs.

However, the state legislature did not give the conservationists the time of day, resulting in this petition drive to bypass the legislative process.

On the basis of a poll showing massive support, the conservation groups felt that the legislature should have been more responsive to their request for a sizeable investment in new conservation programming.

Instead of responding to this appeal in a reasonable way, the legislature passed a token “heritage” appropriation of $15 million annually for conservation projects, with limited involvement of the representatives of the major conservation organizations.

To be blunt, the conservation groups were stonewalled. They were appropriately offended. Because of this reception, they now propose a constitutional provision that would exclude legislative involvement.

It is obvious that the oil boom caught the petitioners off guard. At the time they launched their petition drive, the extraction tax was producing around $75 million a year for their proposal. Later figures now indicate that the proposal will divert at least $100 million annually, a figure that has become more difficult to defend.

Now the argument that this money will impact land prices is unfounded. Even if the entire $100 million were spent on land purchases, it would constitute only a fraction of the land market in the state.

This argument raises the issue about the forces that have produced the skyrocketing land prices over the past six years. The market saw a bunch of land speculators, some from out-of-state, who were driving the prices. (My relatives sold 320 acres for $1.8 million. It went to a speculator from Illinois who bought it sight unseen.)

I would think more money would be spent on leasing potholes and hunting habitat than outright land purchases. It is not realistic to believe that any committee would propose the purchase 25 farms annually to the State Industrial Commission, consisting of the governor, attorney general and commissioner of agriculture. They were subjected to scathing criticism just for considering protection of “extraordinary” places.

While some of the criticism should be dismissed as campaign rhetoric, there are some legitimate issues involved in this measure. The more important ones are the amount of money being diverted, locking the program in the state constitution, requiring the expenditure of the money, and the initial 25-year life of the program.

There is plenty of fodder without the horror stories.

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