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N.D. politics: Legislators: Reject Measure 1, OK alternative in 2010

BISMARCK -- Two legislators, a Democrat and a Republican, are urging voters to reject the oil tax trust fund measure on Nov. 4 and adopt an alternative they propose for the 2010 election.

BISMARCK -- Two legislators, a Democrat and a Republican, are urging voters to reject the oil tax trust fund measure on Nov. 4 and adopt an alternative they propose for the 2010 election.

Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, and Sen. Tracy Potter, D-Bismarck, said Friday they oppose Measure 1, a constitutional amendment that would set aside most of the state's oil tax money into a permanent fund that can't be spent by the Legislature.

Hawken and Potter propose a different constitutional measure to be adopted by the 2009 Legislature and put before voters in 2010.

They said they aren't against setting money aside or the idea of the trust fund. But they said Measure 1 is too drastic and will leave crying needs in the state unaddressed -- and would ultimately raise property taxes.

"It's just too risky for the state, particularly in these very uncertain (national) economic times," Hawken said. She said Friday that she "made a mistake" by voting in the 2007 session to put Measure 1 on the ballot.


Under Measure 1, the state general fund would get the first $100 million every biennium from oil taxes, and, in future years, the interest. Legislators would not be able to spend the principal unless 75 percent of members of both houses approve.

Hawken notes that 25 percent of the Senate is 12 members. That, she said, means "12 people could block the entire state from being able to access its own savings account." She said there is about $1.9 billion worth of repairs and upgrades needed on the state's infrastructure, like roads, bridges and deferred maintenance on college campuses.

Currently, the state general fund gets the first $71 million of oil tax funds each biennium and the rest goes into the Permanent Oil Tax Trust Fund. But the Legislature can and does spend money from the trust fund. The 2007 statewide property tax relief is funded with the trust fund.

From July 1, 2007, to this past August, $275.2 million has gone into the current oil tax fund.

If Measure 1 passes, the new off-limits trust fund would start next July 1; the money currently in the trust fund can still be spent indefinitely.

In Hawken and Potter's proposed oil tax trust fund, 25 percent of oil tax funds would go into a hands-off trust fund and the rest could be used "for investments into our state's roads, bridges, schools and property tax relief," Potter said.

Rep. Dave Weiler, R-Bismarck, prime sponsor of Measure 1 during the 2007 Legislature, noted Potter and Hawken say they believe in the wisdom of some kind of unspendable trust, just not the one on the ballot. That means, he said, "The only thing they object to (in Measure 1) is they cannot get their hands on the money."

Tobacco measure


North Dakota's House majority leader has requested a legal opinion about whether a proposed ballot measure would give a federal agency power to dictate state spending on anti-tobacco efforts.

The measure's chairwoman, former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, said the timing of the request by Rep. Rick Berg, R-Fargo, was meant "to throw sand in everybody's face, thinking that some of it might blind people to what actually is happening."

Berg on Friday asked Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to answer a series of questions about Measure 3, which would establish a new fund for some of the money North Dakota is receiving from a lawsuit settlement against the nation's largest tobacco companies.

The measure puts a committee in charge of establishing a comprehensive plan to reduce tobacco use in North Dakota. It says the effort should be financed using recommendations by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is presently recommending $18.6 million in anti-tobacco expenditures every two years in North Dakota.

"I don't think it's constitutional to allow some agency outside of our state to set the level of state spending," Berg said. "My concerns, when I look at this, is either these (provisions) were poorly thought through when it was drafted, or done intentionally, to give authority that goes beyond what normal agencies have."

For example, the measure says executive committee members of a proposed tobacco control board may take actions that any private individual may do, Berg said. That would include political contributions, he said.

Heitkamp said the measure requires the Legislature to set money aside in a fund that may be spent only on approved anti-tobacco programs. Lawmakers are not ordered to spend the money, but the alternative would be to do nothing, Heitkamp said.

She said the measure's drafters were sensitive to the Legislature's budget prerogatives. Language describing the executive committee's powers was taken from state laws that govern the operation of the state Mill and Elevator, she said. She said the fund could not be used to make political donations.


"Everyone ... completely understands that this is public money, and the restrictions that you typically would have regarding public money," she said.

Heitkamp said she believed Berg was attempting to generate opposition to the measure by raising questions about it shortly before the election. Its language and provisions have been known since last spring, she said. "His motivation is that he doesn't want to spend tobacco money on tobacco control. He does not want to invest in those programs. I don't know how to state it any clearer than that."

No more debates

Gov. John Hoeven has rejected his opponent's suggestion they have three more debates, one each in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 election, saying debates they've already had are being widely rebroadcast.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said Thursday, "The citizens of this state should have every opportunity to hear the differences between the two men running for governor.

Mathern and Hoeven have had three debates. Mathern said he accepted an invitation for a fourth debate Wednesday night, which was to be held at KFYR-TV in Bismarck and broadcast statewide. It won't be held because Hoeven declined to participate, he said.

Hoeven's campaign manager, Don Larson, said the governor has already appeared in three news media-sponsored debates with Mathern, for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, AP Broadcasters and Prairie Public TV.

PSC debate


North Dakota's Public Service Commission candidates are supporting a halt in winter utility shutoffs for customers who haven't paid their bills. Democrat Cheryl Bergian and Republican Brian Kalk discussed the issue during a debate this week in Bismarck.

Energy analysts are forecasting steep heating bills for customers nationwide this winter because of higher prices for oil and natural gas. North Dakota law and regulations restrict utilities' ability to disconnect service during the wintertime if a customer hasn't paid his or her bills. But shutoffs are not prohibited.

Bergian said she would support a moratorium on shutoffs, and Kalk said it would be unethical to turn off someone's light or heat in a North Dakota winter.

Cole reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald. This report includes Associated Press material.

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