ND Senate Passes Regrettable Outdoor Heritage Bill

The North Dakota Senate today passed a bill to create an “outdoor heritage” fund. As amended, the bill puts a portion of oil tax revenues (capped at $15 million per year and $30 million per biennium) into a fund managed by the State Industrial Board with advice from a board of appointees from various special interest groups.

Senator Tyler Axness attempted a floor amendment after a lengthy speech that was hilarious to watch (We need to, like, totally embrace the outdoors bros!). Axness’ amendment would have replaced governance of the fund with the State Land Board. That would have had the impact of removing the Agriculture Commissioner from having a say on conservation, while inserting the Superintendent of Schools, the Secretary of State and the State Treasurer. That doesn’t make a lot of sense as the Ag Commissioner handles a lot of conservation issues, while those other elected offices really do not.

His amendment was defeated soundly on a 13 – 32 vote, but opponents weren’t able to defeat the entire bill.

“It’s a reactionary bill,” Senator Robert Erbele said during the floor debate. “It’s trying to get out in front of something some of us are afraid of.”

Senator Erbele was referring to an initiated measure which would have been on the ballot last fall had it not been derailed by thousands of fraudulent signatures submitted by NDSU football players hired to petition on behalf of the group backing it. That group had already spent hundreds of thousands on gathering signatures, and was reported ready to spend millions on campaigning to pass the measure, and it spooked legislators.

That ballot measure version would have had no cap on funds, allowing hundreds of millions to flow into the fund every biennium, and it would have had no oversight from elected leaders. The bill before the Senate is an attempt by Republicans to get out in front of what may come on the ballot. But not all legislators think it will work.

“No matter what we do here,” Senator Eberle said, “they’re not going to be satisfied by it.” He’s talking about the fact that Ducks Unlimited and other environmental activists pulled their support from this bill and the likelihood that they’ll put something on the ballot anyway in the future.

Senator John Andrist was more stark in his appraisal of the bill. “I feel threatened by this bill,” he said, though he noted that he wasn’t sure how he’d vote. “I don’t like it, and I wonder if it’s worth it to pay a ransom to the wildlife interests who want to control what we do with our land.”

Here’s the floor debate:

Senators Andris and Erbele have it right on this issue. The legislature has now opened the door to enshrining conservation activism in state government, and paved the way for expansion of that power in the future.

We can all debate the need for conservation in the state. Maybe we need more, maybe we need less, but that debate should take place among our elected officials and it should include the legislature. It shouldn’t be pushed off onto some board of special interest groups, and a continuing appropriation when in some years we may not need $15 million worth of conservation is entirely inappropriate.

This is a mistake, and proponents of limited government and property rights will surely regret it.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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