Last year a group of deep-pocket conservation interests spent well in excess of $100,000 on collecting signatures to put a measure on the ballot creating a state conservation board. Per that measure, the board would be funded by an uncapped percentage of state oil tax revenues and would be free to make grants to government entities and non-profits with no oversight from elected officials.
That measure was kept off the ballot after a group of NDSU football players hired to collect signatures forged tens of thousands of signatures, disqualifying it from consideration.
Now, in what some have told me is a bid to get out in front of another such measure being put on the next ballot in the state, the legislature is considering a slightly different version of the proposal (which Governor Dalrymple called for in both his executive budget address to the legislature and his State of the State address). That bill, HB1278, has some important changes which make it not quite as bad as what would have been on the ballot.
The bill would divert 4% of oil extraction revenues into a fund for the board, but would cap total funds at $15 million per year and $30 million per biennium. The conservation would also be prevented from allowing any of its funds to be used for purchasing or encumbering land for longer than 20 years, impeding oil/gas/coal operations, lobbying or litigation. While previous iterations of this proposal would have made the boards decisions subject to approval by the State Industrial Commission, this bill simply allows that board members serve at the pleasure of the governor.
Which means the governor can both appoint and remove them, providing a certain level of accountability to the board.
All this makes this board something less odious than what was proposed for the ballot, but I’m still not convinced this is something the legislature needs to pass.
First, while the use of the board’s funds for environmental activism would be limited, the board is still allowed to make grants to non-profit organizations many of which are quite political in nature. And there are lots of ways to skin a cat. Case in point, one of the most obnoxious groups in the state promoting environmentalism is the Dakota Resource Council, which is almost entirely funded grants from the federal government for “education” purposes.
That much of the group’s “education” has the stink of activism apparently doesn’t matter. I’m afraid this bill sets North Dakota up for the same sort of abuse.
Second, with the level of oil activity going on in the state now and for the foreseeable future, this board is going to hit its $15 million/$30 million caps quickly. That’s a lot of money to spend on conservation, and with it flowing into the board’s coffers, they’re going to feel an obligation to spend it on promoting conservation whether it’s needed or not.
That’s not how those funds should be governed.
It seems to me that if our elected leaders want to do conservation, legislators can propose bills to fund projects or priorities and have them voted on by our legislators. If those spending proposals can’t past muster before the legislature, than perhaps they ought not happen. I’m afraid that, by approving this board, the legislature would be delegating some of its decision-making authority in an irresponsible manner.
Again, I think the legislature is pushing this to get ahead of a proposal that might be a great deal worse on the next ballot, but a bad idea is a bad idea.