On Tuesday, a heated forum took place at NDSU’s Memorial Union over the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment (CWWP) between two panels of three speakers. The two-hour forum covered all the boiling topics surrounding the amendment from outside funding to the economic planning of the potential amendment.
The amendment, which will be Measure 5 on next month’s ballot, has accumulated quite the controversy from supporters and the opposition alike. But apprehensive feelings were capped as the two opposing sides respectfully debated the proposed amendment that is now turning into one of the closest ballot initiatives this year.
One hot topic which stirred the crowd of perhaps 70 listeners was the debate over “allocated spending.” Prior to storming out, one elderly woman stood up mid-discussion to express her frustration over the 25-year-long effective date in which the amendment would be valid until a state-wide vote could overturn the amendment.
Supporters made note that in the chaos of conversation, many topics are being misconstrued. The opposition to Measure 5 consistently claims that every year that this measure is in place, 75 percent of the accumulated funds must be used on conservation spending. This, of course, would promote wasteful and irresponsible spending. Eric Lindstrom, a representative for Ducks Unlimited, responded by stating “What [the opposition] fails to realize is that the funds can be allocated for single or multiple year projects and can also be allocated back into the trust [account].” Therefore, funding will not automatically support every harebrained grant proposal, but would rather have a safety net of responsibility.
Overall, the total amount collected from oil and gas revenues by Measure 5 would be roughly 3 percent. Although this seems like next to nothing, the state Office of Management and Budget estimated that at current extraction rates the amount collected would be roughly $259 million in the 2015-17 biennium.
“When you clear it all away, it’s all about the money,” Dan Wogsland, the executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association stated at the forum. All three opponents gave their cautionary word over the allocated funds taking away from other projects such as funding for infrastructure, housing and education. Tying up funds in any way means the legislature has less to work with once they are back in session.
But if rivals of the amendment are confident in their estimates that 5 percent of the oil and gas extraction tax (which is how much the CWWP amendment secures) is $300 million per biennium then in two years, just the extraction portion of oil and gas taxes would accumulate $6 billion. In addition, given that it’s a percentage and not a fixed cost, no required amount is in place to be accumulated by the amendment.
Nonetheless, supporters of Measure 5 have tried to tackle this ideology from the beginning. A fact sheet from proponents states that funding for Measure 5 will come from surplus oil and gas extraction tax revenues and will not affect any dollars going to western impacted counties, education or other important priorities. At the forum, Lindstrom said this measure would actually “provide money for education.” Under section 1 of the amendment text, there is a bullet which states the new amendment would “create more opportunities and places for children to learn about and enjoy nature and the outdoors.
However, natural-science related education is not the same thing as funding the whole of school curriculum. In addition, other planned allocations such as “natural flood control” found in section 2.B of the amendment text have limits depending on interpretation. Thomas Beadle, a state representative from district 27 and an opponent of the measure, claimed that this particular article in the amendment would only support natural flood preventative measures such as wet lands and forestry. It would not “go towards things such as sandbagging funds or dealing with water shortages.” Wogsland added “How are they securing clean water? Treatment plants would not be covered by this.”
“The [North Dakota State] constitution is not a means to fund pet projects and allocate state revenue,” stated Thomas Beadle, a state representative from district 27. Having a respectable background in economics and the legislative process, Beadle expressed his concern over how this amendment would “tie the hands” of the legislature on future funding for other sectors of North Dakota outside of conservation efforts.
“I don’t think one person up here believes we shouldn’t increase conservation spending,” Beadle noted. “But that is what the legislative process is for.” Beadle also made comments about other states, such as California and Minnesota, which have one or more amendments in their constitution mandating spending to various initiative and the financial trouble such laws cause in the long-term.
Currently, North Dakota does have a similar conservation grant-based funding program called the Outdoor Heritage Fund (OHF). Created in 2013 by the state legislature, the fund can receive up to $15 million annually, or $30 million per biennium, under a formula that provides a percentage of oil and gas production taxes. Challengers such as rep. Beadle feel revamping the OHF is the more responsible way to handle conservation efforts in North Dakota.
But the fund has been highly criticized for its monetary limitations. At the debate, Lindstrom claimed that “three out of four applicants have walked away unfunded, and many projects are only partially funded.” According to the Bismarck Tribune, $5.75 million was approved to partially fund 14 projects through the OHF. This was well short of the $46 million these 14 projects would actually cost if they were fully funded. “Do you want to bet on maybes or guarantees?” Measure 5 supporter Jack Lawlyer questioned Tuesday.
“Special interests” investments
It’s no secret that big money on both sides of the banter are contributing to the Measure 5 debate. Last week, the Bismarck Tribune ran an article that called out the American Petroleum Institute for contributing over $1 million to smear the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks amendment. At the same time, Ducks Unlimited has openly shared their support with monetary amounts of over $800,000 towards the CWWP campaign.
But there is an obvious and fundamental difference between these two organizations. Ducks Unlimited has been operating in North Dakota for over 50 years. Through every boom-bust cycle and economic downturn, Ducks Unlimited has stayed in the state to work closely with agricultural groups and sportsman organizations to promote natural habitat sustainability. It’s clear that their future is linked to a healthy hunting, fishing and lodging reality. And despite the claims by Wogsland that the CWWP measure would dish out over $4.6 billion to the national office of Ducks Unlimited (this was met with a large about of backlash from the crowd), Just like the OHF, this measure strictly prohibits any project money leaving the state. “This is a proactive measure. For the first time in generations, North Dakota is growing exponentially in population.”
The API, on the other hand, is in no way publicly stated their intent for standing against Measure 5 and to the discomfiture of the opposition, the 3 person panel could not secure a reasonable answer once the question was brought up. One potential reason could be the group is afraid that this conservation measure would set precedents for other states to follow, giving less opportunity for energy companies to expand production. Farmer and hunting advocate, Dick Monson of Valley City, had some choice words for why the API became involved in this state-ballot initiative. “This is just my speculation, but come next legislative cycle, they’re going to ask for their money back,” Monson stated. “They want a tax break.” According to rep. Beadle, oil and gas taxes did increase in the last legislative session, and with oil prices continuing to tumble, it’s not out of this world to assume production companies would ask for more of their return in the given economic context.
Currently, Measure 5 is too close to call from the recent polls commissioned by Forum Communications Co. and conducted by the University of North Dakota College of Business and Public Administration. The results found 44 percent of respondents planned to vote for the measure, 37 percent planned to vote against it and 18 percent were undecided.