Growing up, my family taught me about needs and wants. If we went to the store and I saw a toy I wanted, my parents would ask me, “Do you really need that toy, or do you just want it?” Of course, usually I just wanted it. And why not? Someone else was paying for it. The trouble was, I also needed new pants, underwear or necessary school supplies. So, my parents’ money went to those things instead and, if I was lucky, I got the toy at Christmas or on my birthday.
The moral is that you can’t always have a toy simply because you want it. Sometimes, you need the essentials and, if you’re patient, eventually you’ll get what you really want.
This seems to be the case with Measure 5, commonly known as the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment. Over the past few months, a rhetoric of Utopian promise from proponents, apocalyptic fear from opponents and half-truths from both sides have made this measure one of the North Dakota’s most-watched campaigns of the 2014 election.
In short, Measure 5 would devote 5 percent of the state’s oil extraction taxes toward conservation spending.
Sounds OK, right? That’s what I thought when I first heard the pitch last year from members of the group North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks — which happened to be comprised mostly of Ducks Unlimited officials. Then, I began learning more about it.
The latest revenue projections estimate that if Measure 5 passes and the conservation fund is created, it would receive more than $300 million in the 2015-17 biennium. According to the proposed amendment, more than 75 percent of that money must be spent on an annual basis over the next 25 years.
That’s a lot of mandated spending on a fund when no one knows how the money will be spent or how much money will actually be rolled into the fund annually.
Instead, we have heard how we have to protect our parks, we have to protect our clean water and we have to protect our wildlife. As if North Dakotans haven’t already been doing that.
Measure 5 proponents also tout that the amendment would be great for farmers and ranchers, yet the only answer ever given when asked “How so?” is that farmers would have a chance to receive government payments for turning their farmland into wildlife preserves.
The trouble is, there isn’t a farmer-represented agricultural organization in this state that supports Measure 5. Neither do the two candidates for state agriculture commissioner. Why? It’s not like these agricultural groups receive pockets full of oil extraction tax funds. In fact, these funds already go toward spending on education, infrastructure and water resources.
While Measure 5 proponents dismiss any kind of “land grab” theory, at least one of their spokesmen has told The Press that purchasing land for conservation efforts is a goal.
Rich Brauhn, a former Dickinson State University professor and proponent of Measure 5, told The Press Editorial Board on Sept. 25: “What it does is it takes just a little bit of money from the oil revenue and it’s used to help purchase lands, maintain areas and provide access and preserve that outdoor way of life and heritage for a future generation.”
Brauhn, a respected educator and someone very informed about North Dakota politics, went on to say, “I think it would be terrible if, in 15 to 20 years, I can’t take my son out and go hunting on some state land because everyone is going to go put up no hunting signs or post this, that and whatever.”
When I challenged his comment and said landowners have every right to dictate what happens on their property, Brauhn replied: “That’s true. It’s also true that the state has, in some cases, a quality-of-life situation.”
Therein lies the Measure 5 proponent’s argument and campaign: Convince voters that North Dakota — one of the cleanest, most environmentally-sound states in the nation, where you can still breath clean air, drink clean water and enjoy the outdoors seemingly whenever you choose — doesn’t have the quality of life its citizens have been led to believe they have.
While it’s true that North Dakota needs to invest some of our newfound oil wealth into environmental projects, our state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund is already tasked with doing that by giving $30.4 million per biennium in oil production tax funds — different than oil extraction tax, by the way — to conservation efforts. And Gov. Jack Dalrymple recently, in an obvious effort to beat back Measure 5, proposed that the Outdoor Heritage Fund be increased to $80.4 million per biennium. The conservation spending the governor proposes is fair. The Legislature, likely to be again dominated by Republicans, will get behind it.
In North Dakota, there are too many other pressing issues — especially in the western part of the state — for citizens to vote for a Constitutional change that would mandate spending upward of $225 million on conservation efforts every two years and sock away about $75 million more in a trust fund.
North Dakota is truly in a need cycle. We need more money for education, roads and affordable housing projects so that people can and will want to live in the Oil Patch and other areas affected by the energy industry (which won’t just be western North Dakota if the industry continues to grow).
As much as some North Dakotans want more money to create state parks or wildlife preserves, these are amenities are easily attainable through the existing spending programs and can be obtained without harming the agriculture industry or by taking money away from education and infrastructure spending.
The toys can wait. Right now, this state needs the essentials.