MEASURING UP: Ag groups say ‘no’ to constitutional amendment | TSLN.com

MEASURING UP: Ag groups say ‘no’ to constitutional amendment

Often, the ag community is criticized for infighting. "Why can't they just get along?" critics ask.

This fall those folks should be satisfied. According to the website, a total of 55 organizations representing state agricultural interests, energy, education, construction, and chambers of commerce for the state's largest towns, have banded together as members of the "North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation."

The group hopes to defeat Measure 5, a proposed constitutional amendment.

The proposed measure, backed by yet another coalition, "North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks," would add an amendment new element to the state constitution. The constitutional amendment would create a fund to be "used for grants to state agencies, tribal governments, local governments, political subdivisions, and nonprofit organizations," according to the amendment language.

Over 275 people and/or businesses are listed as supporters on the coalition's website, along with these national backers: Ducks Unlimited, Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp, Izaak Walton League Of America, National Parks Conservation Association, National Wild Turkey Federation, National Wildlife Federation, North American Grouse Partnership, Pheasants Forever, Quality Deer Management Association, The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Wildlife Forever, Wildlife Management Institute and World Wildlife Fund.

The proposed amendment would earmark five percent of the state's share of oil extraction taxes for grants. It is estimated that this would amount to about $150 million per year for the 25 years that the amendment would be in place, said Allen Lund, secretary for the Independent Beef Association of North Dakota.

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While 10 percent of the kitty would be required to be saved for future use, 75 percent or more – up to 90 percent – is required to be spent each year, said North Dakota Stockmen's Association director Wayne Gerbig, Amidon.

Both groups, along with the state Farm Bureau, Farmers Union many other ag groups, chambers of commerce including Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo, a number of education organizations and many more are a part of the coalition hoping to convince voters to say "No" to the measure.

Lund and Gerbig and their organizations agree that the potential amount of land that could be purchased and taken out of agricultural production is concerning.

"The land acquisition is a big, big part of my concern," Gerbig said. "If they were to purchase land in our area, in the Badlands area, it would definitely drive up the land prices. It is inappropriate for the government to subsidize entities to compete against private citizens."

Lund, who ranches near Selfridge, agrees. "They would be able to come in and buy agriculture land, take it out of production, raise land prices for farmers and ranchers." Lund said anytime an acre is taken out of ag production, it places more pressure on remaining acres to produce more food with less, driving up land prices and cash rent values.

"I-BAND policy states that we oppose oil extraction taxes being earmarked for special interest groups," he said.

Lund would rather see the money go back to the oilfield region to be used as needed for infrastructure improvements.

Julie Ellingson, NDSA executive vice president said that while the coalition in support of the measure downplays the land acquisition aspect, she believes the 13- member board that would be created to oversee the spending of the fund would, by default, be forced into buying land.

"There aren't that many projects to come up with to spend that much money. When they get to the end of the fiscal year, what is the quickest way to adhere to the mandate in the constitution [to spend 75 percent of the money]? It is to buy land. One of the quickest ways to turn over cash is to make some pretty big acquisitions in a hurry." Ellingson said according to estimates, about $4.8 billion would be put into the fund in 25 years. The measure language calls for a vote every 25 years to determine whether to maintain the fund.

Ellingson said her group also believes that the one farmer or rancher slot on the 13- member board would not give agriculture an adequate voice in the fund's management.

Eric Lindstrom, government affairs staffer for the regional Ducks Unlimited office, located in Bismarck, said the board is fair because there are several seats for elected officials. The board would make recommendations for grants, with final approval being required by the Governor, state ag commissioner and state attorney general.

Besides land purchases, Gerbig is concerned with the lack of local support for the measure.

"Out-of-state interests are the big financial push in getting this passed. It makes you believe there is more to it than clean water, wildlife and parks, like the name says. No doubt this would come back to haunt private land owners. That is a lot of money they are after, 25 years of it, it is a tremendous amount of it.

A broad coalition consisting of family farms, small businesses, educators and healthcare providers back Measure 5, said Lindstrom. "Measure 5 dedicates a small portion of our existing extraction taxes to create a granting program for things like programs to help protect our clean water, provide outdoor recreational opportunities provide fundings for farmers and ranchers to participate in voluntary programs, and to provide fish and wildlife habitat on public and private lands." Lindstrom said, "every community in North Dakota could apply for a grant for a park."

Regarding the land purchase concerns of the opposing group, Lindstrom said that there are safeguards in state law to prevent said acquisitions from harming farmers or ranchers.

Gerbig worries about inviting additional regulation with the vague language of the proposal.

"Clean water…what does that mean? That could mean a lot of things. If they go out and do worthwhile projects that is one thing but if they go out and push what the EPA is pushing now, that worries me."

"Work could be done on private or public land," Lindstrom said, telling that he foresees private landowners being funded by grant recipients to "enhance grazing, plant cover crops, improve water. That is where we see a real benefit for North Dakota farmers and ranchers," he said.

"Over 90 percent of land in North Dakota is privately owned. If you are going to be successful, you have to work with ag interests," Lindstrom said.

Ellingson, Lund and Gerbig tell about an already enacted – and functioning to the tune of $30 million per biennium – fund called the "Outdoor Heritage Fund," that was approved two years ago by North Dakota voters. That funding is appropriated for improving hunting and fishing access, conservation and other similar goals, Lund said.

The heritage act does not allow land acquisition and the ranchers agree, that is probably one big reason for the continued efforts by national groups to pass measure 5.

"They call this measure the Clean water, wildlife and parks initiative – those things are all priorities for agriculture – that is what we do, but we have concerns over this intiative. It would create a massive fund of inappropriate size, and would be pulling money away from other needs," Ellingson said, adding that she is really passionate about the issue. "If this would pass, we'd be making decisions for the North Dakota legislature for the next two and a half decades rather than allowing people to respond to whatever the needs are at the time for infrastructure, tax relief, school funding or whatever that might be."

The one good element to come out of the proposed measure is the camaraderie of organizations representing such an array of backgrounds – from cattle to education, from banking to building, said Ellingson.

"It's exciting to see the grassroots effort that has risen up against this. It is really gratifying is to see our members help carry that message to local communities, family and friends about what this would mean to real people," Ellingson said, adding that her group is supplying "vote no" yard signs to anyone interested.

There are better uses for the massive amount of oil money suddenly available to the state, Gerbig said.

"If they handle that money right it could be here for a long, long time for the state, to do a lot of good, maybe to keep the taxes down," he said.

The Clean Water, Wildlife, and Parks Fund oversight board would consist of:

Four citizen members appointed by the governor, upon the recommendation of the director of the game and fish department;

Two citizen members appointed by the governor, upon the recommendation of the director of the parks and recreation department;

One citizen member appointed by the governor, upon the recommendation of the indian affairs commission;

Two members of the state senate, appointed by the president pro tempore, with equal representation from the two largest political parties in the senate;

Two members of the house of representatives, appointed by the speaker, with equal representation from the two largest political parties in the house;

One energy industry representative to be appointed by the public service commission;

One farmer or rancher to be appointed by the agriculture commissioner.

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