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MEASURE 5: N.D. voters reject conservation fund supported by oil tax money

BISMARCK – North Dakota voters emphatically rejected a ballot measure Tuesday that would have dedicated millions and potentially billions of dollars in oil tax revenue for conservation projects over the next 25 years.

With all 427 precincts reporting, the “no” votes totaled 79.4 percent, while supporters mustered 20.6 percent. The results are complete but unofficial.

North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks pitched the constitutional amendment as a way to preserve the state’s clean water and land for future generations and balance the impacts of energy development and agricultural production.

Opponents painted Measure 5 as being driven by out-of-state groups looking to cash in on oil-rich North Dakota’s overflowing coffers and argued it would come at the expense of schools, roads and other priorities.

“I think that North Dakotans have kind of overwhelming said that this type of spending does not belong in our constitution,” said Jon Godfread, chairman of North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, the coalition that opposed the measure.

Despite the defeat, Steve Adair, campaign chairman for North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks, said measure supporters felt they were able to “elevate the conversation” in the state.

“I think people are aware of many of the needs of state parks and habitat and water quality and that we need to have a bigger response to that,” he said. “We’re going to continue advocating. We’ll move into the legislative arena now.”

As an alternative to Measure 5, Gov. Jack Dalrymple recently proposed increasing the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund to $50 million for 2015-17 and committing $30.4 million to improving state parks. House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said he and Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, also plan to introduce a bill proposing at least $50 million in spending to enhance parks and other recreational opportunities.

Adair said Measure 5 was a “pretty new, bold idea,” but added, “I’m not sure we would have seen the same response out of the governor and legislative leaders without pushing for something big.”

He wouldn’t rule out bringing a similar measure in the future, saying it will depend on how the Legislature responds.

Measure sponsors gathered more than 41,000 signatures from eligible voters to put the initiated measure on the ballot, after fraud committed by paid signature gatherers spoiled their first attempt in 2012.

Backed by conservation groups including Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and Pheasants Forever, the measure proposed dedicating 5 percent of the state’s oil extraction tax revenue into a trust and a granting fund for projects related to water, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation.

State budget forecasters predicted the fund and trust would collect $308 million by July 2017, money that otherwise would stream into the state’s general fund.

Godfread said many in the agriculture community were uncomfortable that the fund could be used for land acquisition.

At the Bismarck Event Center, lifelong North Dakota resident Shirley Faul, 77, said she voted for Measure 5 “because I consider myself a conservationist” and she wanted water resources and wildlife protected.

But she also said she had heard rumors that groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Sierra Club “would try to snatch up the land” if the measure passed.

“I hope that’s not the case,” she said.

Opponents warned that the measure could threaten school funding, but Bismarck High School science teacher Tim Kolsrud, 56, said that’s not what swayed him to vote against it.

“I think it’s a lot of money to be earmarked for a certain focused thing. I’m looking for a little more legislative scrutiny,” he said, adding he also wanted more details about how the money would be spent.

Adair acknowledged that supporters “certainly could have done a better job describing to communities what this measure could mean to them.”

The high-stakes measure attracted more than $6.5 million in campaign contributions and independent expenditures. As of Friday, proponents had outspent opponents about $4.2 million to $2.4 million.

Ducks Unlimited, which is headquartered in Memphis, Tenn., and has a regional office in Bismarck that Adair oversees, led the way among supporters, dumping more than $2.6 million into the effort. The Washington, D.C.-based American Petroleum Institute spent about $1.2 million fighting the measure.

But it was the broad coalition of more than 60 North Dakota groups led by Godfread’s employer, the Greater North Dakota Chamber, that opponents touted as evidence of the measure’s widespread unpopularity.

“They had a very strong grassroots effort with the farm organizations, and I think the American Petroleum Institute is pretty hard-nosed, and they came in with some pretty emotional angles,” Adair said. “I think they scared people, and it’s always easier to get a ‘no’ vote if you’re able to do that.”

Godfread saw the measure’s defeat as both a rejection of spending mandates in the state constitution and an endorsement of the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which was created by the 2013 Legislature and capped at $30 million for the 2013-2015 biennium.

“That’s a statutory fund that’s flexible, and the Legislature can move that up and down,” he said.

As the measure’s lead proponent, Ducks Unlimited became a target for opponents’ criticism, particularly from farm groups.

“We have some healing to do, and we have some work to do helping people to understand our organization better,” Adair said.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.

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