Posted 9/25/13 (Wed)
By Neal A. Shipman
How much additional state money should be available for conservation, parks and wildlife programs in North Dakota? Is $15 million a year enough? Or should there be $44 million set aside every year from the state’s oil and gas income to fund new programs and parks?
That’s a real good question. And it is a question that every North Dakota voter needs to think long and hard about before they put their name on any petitions that would dedicate any more state oil and gas revenues to any specific project.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for parks and wildlife. But I am really struggling to justify a proposed initiative by some state residents, as well as by some out-of-state conservation groups, who would like to create a Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Fund and Trust, and then fund that program by tapping into the state’s oil and gas revenues to the tune of five percent a year.
Currently, there are several state agencies, namely the North Dakota Game and Fish Dept. and the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Dept., that are specifically charged by North Dakota state law with managing and administering our parks and wildlife. Plus there are several federal agencies from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Corps of Engineers to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that administer well over a million acres of federal parks and wildlife areas in the state.
When all totalled together, one would think that with all of the city, county, state and federal land already in existence in the state that has been dedicated for parks, wildlife and conservation, that maybe there is enough already in the state.
But apparently that is not the case.
Equally apparent is that even though the 2013 North Dakota Legislature created the Outdoor Heritage Fund and provided $15 million a year from the state’s oil and gas receipts for wildlife and conservation, there were some people who still believe that tens of millions of dollars a year are still needed.
While I am a proponent of the state’s initiated and referral process, I think that measures, such as this one, need to be closely examined when it comes to the long-term fiscal impact that they can have on the state and its ability to meet the needs of all of its citizens.
Committing five percent of the state’s oil and gas funds for a specific project such as the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Fund and Trust, while noble in concept, can be disastrous in reality.
North Dakota is blessed to have a very comfortable balance in its state treasury thanks to our state’s thriving oil and gas industry. But as we have seen in the last two legislative sessions, the amount of money that the state Legislature is going to have to commit to meeting the road and other infrastructure needs that are being destroyed in the oil-impacted regions of the state is astronomical.
One of the primary jobs of the Legislature is to sort out the state’s finances and determine how much of the state’s revenue can go to tax relief, how much can go to roads and infrastructure, how much can go to our primary and secondary schools, how much can go to social services, and the list of needs and wants goes on and on.
And during every legislative session there are the winners, those who get what they believe they need; and there are the losers, those who feel that the Legislature abandoned them and failed to meet their needs.
Right or wrong, it’s simply the way that government works.
While we may not like how things turn out once in a while, we have to believe that the Legislature is looking at the big picture when it comes to providing funds across the state.
And that is what the proponents of the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Fund and Trust initiated measure have either seem to forgotten or are choosing to ignore.
The danger with this initiated measure, if it is successful, is that it will forever dedicate millions of dollars for one specific purpose, and to an organization that is not answerable to the rest of the citizens of the state.
That alone is a dangerous precedent and should give every North Dakota voter a very good reason to pause and seriously consider the consequences before they sign any petition.