The backstory behind North Dakota’s Outdoor Heritage Fund has become something of a saga. In the 2012 election cycle conservation activists attempted to get on the ballot a measure to create a constitutional conservation fund. It would have diverted hundreds of millions of dollars in oil tax revenues into a fund overseen by an appointed board of special interests who would then use it to fund conservation projects.
The measure was derailed when a group of NDSU Bison football players got caught committing signature fraud on the petitions supporting it, and that left the state legislature an opening to do something of their own. Which they did, passing a bill introduced by Rep. Todd Porter (R-Mandan) which created a much smaller fund – $30 million per year – with more oversight from elected leaders and restrictions on how the money can be spent.
Still not satisfied, conservation activists are making another run at a ballot measure (read the latest iteration here) which diverts a lot more tax dollars and would allow those dollars to be used for things like buying up land.
But in the mean time, the fund created by the state legislature is in place, and it already has more requests than dollars. Not only that, but Rep. Porter believes many of the requests exceed the legislative intent of the fund.
“I was surprised at…the types of requests that came in,” he told me. “The ones that really surprised me were the research and development requests from the universities. I don’t think that we ever intended the fund to be used for those.”
Rep. Porter also said he felt it was “very important” that there be some “local skin in the game,” meaning the committee shouldn’t fund entire projects but seek partnerships with entities who raise part of the funding themselves.
I asked Rep. Porter if, with conservation activists seeking a larger fund, he still felt the Outdoor Heritage Fund provides enough money. He believes the level is good for now, but isn’t opposed to expanding.
“To start with I think we picked a very good number,” he told me. “I’m not saying it should stay there forever. It may need to go to $40, $45 or $50 million dollars.”
But Rep. Porter said what’s motivating the conservation groups is a desire to pump tax dollars into their own operations. “One of the reasons that the conservation groups think it’s not enough money,” he said, “is when you look at some of their proposals they have entire proposals that are nothing but full-time employees for their organizations paid for with state dollars.”
“That fund was never intended to be a job source fund for a non-profit,” he said.
Listen to the full audio above.