BISMARCK, N.D. - The debate on if — or how — to fund an outdoor heritage program from oil and gas taxes drew a standing-room-only crowd Thursday morning, prompting a continuance of the hearings into the afternoon before the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
Two separate proposals are before the Legislature: one that would collect up to $30 million every two years and the other $100 million a year.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee heard testimony on both bills, starting with House Bill 1278, which narrowly passed the House.
Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, is the prime sponsor of HB1278. Porter said he was disappointed by a measure introduced by Democrats that would amend the state’s constitution to create the fund.
“It raised a lot of eyebrows among various groups,” Porter told the committee. He said various conservation groups in the state tried to kill HB1278.
Porter’s original bill would have included Ducks Unlimited, the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust Fund, Pheasants Forever and an at-large conservation group on a 12-member advisory board.
Under Porter’s bill, the state Industrial Commission would have the final say in how the funds, capped at $30 million a biennium, would be distributed to state, local or tribal agencies, nonprofits or political subdivisions for projects.
Porter offered an amendment to his bill Thursday, taking Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and the Land Trust off the advisory committee established under his bill.
Porter told the Tribune he believes the three groups tried to kill his bill.
The positions would not be eliminated from the advisory board, just those groups, Porter said. The positions would become at-large.
A second amendment would double the percentage of taxes collected for the fund. Porter said the original 4 percent of 1 percent of gross production at the well would have generated about $17.5 million every two years.
The 8 percent figure would generate about $35 million a biennium, hitting the $30 million cap.
House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said he was disappointed in what he termed an effort to “torpedo” the bill by some groups.
A Senate resolution, SCR4027, introduced before the crossover, would establish an outdoor heritage fund through a change in the state’s constitution, requiring a vote of the people.
The resolution, introduced by Sen. Tyler Axness, D-Fargo, would generate up to $100 million a year and allow the purchase of land and easements, something not allowed under the House version.
Democratic Rep. Scott Kelsh of Fargo said the resolution offers an alternative for more funding while giving the public a say in the issue.
“Give the people a chance to vote on it,” Kelsh said.
A similar measure was slated to be on the November general election ballot but was disqualified because of petition fraud.
Mike McEnroe of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation said the measure is the most important piece of conservation legislation in decades.
At $100 million per year, McEnroe said, that equates to 1.6 percent of the state budget.
Porter’s bill seemed to have consensus approval at the beginning of the session. However, SCR4027 has support of those who see the oil boom as a way to replace programs like the Conservation Reserve Program.
Ag groups like the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, North Dakota Farmers Union, North Dakota Farm Bureau and North Dakota Grain Growers Association support HB1278 but not SCR4027.
The farm groups took a straight line position to oppose SCR4027 because it allows the purchase of land and easements, and reduces the ag community’s presence on the advisory committee from four seats to two.
The Greater North Dakota Association, the state chamber of commerce organization, came out against the resolution, saying it would create the ninth-largest state agency under its funding mechanism.
Julie Ellingson of the Stockmen’s Association said SCR4027 had a "litany of flaws."