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Tribune editorial: State needs to share taxes with Fort Berthold
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Tribune editorial: State needs to share taxes with Fort Berthold

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The North Dakota House needs to return Senate Bill 2319 to its original version or at least negotiate better terms for the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

The bill originally was intended to allow the reservation to share tax revenue with the state from 132 oil wells that start outside the reservation’s border and cross horizontally underneath. It would be considered stealing if a landowner tunneled from his property to a neighbor’s to take a commodity.

Unfortunately, when it comes to oil, the state considers it a good business practice. The state could lose out on $13 million in taxes over the next two years under the wording of the first version of Senate Bill 2319. Or, put another way, that’s the type of tax revenue that’s been denied the reservation for years.

Tribal Chairman Mark Fox feels betrayed by the changes made in the Senate to the bill. Fox said he and state leaders shook hands on the original intent of the bill earlier this year. He believes that agreement has been broken.

The Senate amended the bill to delay any tax sharing for another two years and exclude wells in Mountrail County.

Fox hopes to salvage the bill, but he faces an uphill battle. Part of the problem is that the issues surrounding the bill have become entangled in the politics involving the Biden administration’s energy policy.

President Joe Biden issued a directive to halt oil leasing on federal lands while the administration reviews the practice. Some tracts of federal minerals next to the reservation boundary could be accessed by drilling a well that starts on Fort Berthold. The tribe would need leniency from the Biden administration to do so.

Fox has indicated his willingness to push the administration for approval to drill. If that happens, the state would receive some tax revenue from the wells.

Still, the Tribune editorial board doesn’t believe the root of the problem is the Biden administration’s policy. Biden made no secret about his energy policy while running for president. The halt to leasing on federal lands shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

What bothers legislators is the thought of sharing tax revenue with the tribe. Even though the revenue comes from oil on tribal land, they don’t want to give it up. It smacks of the policies throughout this nation’s history that saw Native lands and resources stolen.

In recent years, the state has worked with the Three Affiliated Tribes to reach agreements on tax policy. A new tax sharing agreement was reached after the 2019 legislative session. The Legislature needs to continue those good faith efforts and reach an agreement on Senate Bill 2319.

Otherwise, everyone could lose. If no agreement is reached, Fox has suggested the tribe will impose its own tax on wells that begin off the reservation and cross over.

The tribe hasn't received any of the tax revenue on the boundary-crossing wells in question for more than 10 years. Tribal leaders are just asking the state to start sharing now. The state has benefited from the revenue for years; it’s not much to ask the state to begin sharing.

It’s the fair and right thing to do.

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