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ND conservation measure backers will skip State Fair forum organized by opponents

BISMARCK – Backers of a proposed conservation fund that would draw from North Dakota oil tax revenue are gathering petition signatures at the North Dakota State Fair in Minot, but they’ve declined to publicly debate the measure’s merits with the coalition group opposing it.

Sponsors of the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment must file at least 26,904 signatures from qualified voters by Aug. 6 to secure a spot on the November ballot.

They turned down an invitation from the Common Sense Conservation group to participate in a community forum Tuesday at the fair, which began Friday and runs through July 26.

“We do think it’s premature to start doing that sort of thing until after we officially file (the petition signatures), which will be soon,” Becky Jones-Mahlum, a spokeswoman for the sponsoring committee, said Friday.

Mahlum also noted that Ducks Unlimited has a retreat in South Dakota next week. She and Stephen Adair, the committee’s chairman, both work for Ducks Unlimited, one of several wildlife groups backing the measure.

Coalition chairman Jon Godfread, vice president of governmental affairs for the Greater North Dakota Chamber, criticized backers for dodging the forum, saying they claim they want a fair and open debate on the proposal but then passed up the opportunity.

“I think there’s a clear pattern here of not really wanting to get into the issues,” he said.

If approved by voters, the fund would receive 5 percent of the state’s share of oil extraction tax revenue. But the two sides – both using ad campaigns to try to sway potential petition signers and voters – disagree on just how much money that would mean for the fund.

Opponents say the fund will collect $300 million to $400 million every two years, which Godfread called a conservative estimate based on projected oil output.

Sponsors have rested on a figure of up to $150 million every two years, a number supplied by the state Office of Management and Budget based on the April 2013 legislative forecast for the 2013-15 biennium.

But OMB Director Pam Sharp said that forecast assumed the state’s oil production would reach 830,000 barrels per day by the biennium’s end on June 30, 2015, and production already topped 1 million barrels per day in April.

The fund would have received $79 million during the first year of this biennium and more than that during the second year, based on current production levels, Sharp said.

An updated oil production and price forecast for 2015-17 will be finalized in August, giving voters a clearer picture of what the proposed fund would collect.

“I think we can safely say it’ll be higher because production is going up,” she said.

Adair said sponsors don’t dispute that the fund could draw more than $150 million per biennium, adding there are “all kinds of projections out there.” He said backers have already received ideas for projects totaling more than $400 million per year related to clean water, flood control, recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat.

“For us, dedicating 1 percent of our state’s budget to these tremendous needs, the quality of life we have in this state, is very prudent,” he said.

Jones-Mahlum wouldn’t say whether sponsors have already collected more than the 26,904 signatures needed, but she and Adair both said they’re right on track to meet their goal of 40,000 signatures.

“We’ll be well above the minimum and have a strong base going in,” Adair said.

Tuesday’s forum is scheduled from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. on the Dakota Talent Stage at the fairgrounds.