Push for more outdoor funding in ND stalls as budget tightens
BISMARCK - In what one Democrat called "the first of unfortunately a long line of broken promises," state senators passed a bill Wednesday that would keep the state's Outdoor Heritage Fund capped at $30 million instead of the $50 million proposed...
BISMARCK – In what one Democrat called “the first of unfortunately a long line of broken promises,” state senators passed a bill Wednesday that would keep the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund capped at $30 million instead of the $50 million proposed by Gov. Jack Dalrymple as an alternative to a controversial ballot measure last fall.
As debate heated up over Measure 5, the constitutional amendment that would have diverted hundreds of millions of dollars in oil tax revenue to conservation projects, Dalrymple held a news conference Sept. 29 to announce a “sound and balanced” alternative: raise the Outdoor Heritage Fund’s cap from $30 million to $50 million per biennium and spend $30.4 million to expand and upgrade the state park system.
Senators voted 36-11 Wednesday to maintain the cap at $30 million – less than the $40 million approved by the House 78-15 February – and increase the fund’s share of oil tax revenue by a smaller percentage than what House members approved.
“The amendments to this bill are what appears to be the first of unfortunately a long line of broken promises that was made during the last election cycle by the governor and the majority,” said Sen. Tyler Axness, D-Fargo.
Sen. Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, a bill sponsor who proposed the amendments in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the bill will still channel more money into the fund – almost $21 million in 2015-17, compared with about $18.4 million projected this biennium.
She bristled at the suggestion that Republicans were reneging on promises made last fall.
“When I stood with the governor (at the press conference in September), we had a completely different outlook on what level of revenue the state would be receiving,” she said in an interview. “Everything needs to be given a second look.”
Created by lawmakers in 2013, the Outdoor Heritage Fund currently receives 4 percent of 1 percent of the state’s oil gross production tax revenue – up to $30 million every two years – for use as grants to support conservation and outdoor recreation projects.
But because of how the formula was set up, the fund hasn’t come close to reaching the cap.
House members voted February to raise the cap to $40 million and adjust the fund’s share in the formula from 4 percent to 8 percent so it will fill up faster.
The Senate-amended bill would maintain the $30 million cap with a smaller bump in the formula, to 6 percent.
Eric Lindstrom, government affairs representative at the Bismarck regional office of Ducks Unlimited, the biggest backer of last fall’s unsuccessful Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks amendment, said that while conservation groups were hoping for the full $50 million proposed in the governor’s budget, the House version of the bill is “a fiscally sound and reasonable investment” given the current revenue picture dampened by slumping oil prices.
“We’re a little perplexed in that everybody to date … has testified in support of the funding increase,” he said of the Senate amendments.
John Devney, vice president of policy for Delta Waterfowl at its U.S. headquarters in Bismarck, said even with an 8 percent share, the fund likely wouldn’t reach the $40 million cap next biennium, which he said is appropriate because the intent is for the fund to ebb and flow with the state’s financial health.
“Realities are realities, and that’s fine,” he said. “But I think the thing is, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and this is not an appropriation. This is about making sure the funding formula is appropriate.”
Supporters of increasing the fund note that grant applications so far have exceeded $62 million, far more than the $19.3 million in grants awarded for 64 projects by the state Industrial Commission at the recommendation of the fund’s advisory board.
Board members have said many of those projects didn’t meet the fund’s intent or eligibility guidelines. The bill approved Wednesday tightens the guidelines and clarifies that the intent is to enhance conservation.
“We’re looking for $30 million worth of quality projects,” said Sen. Donald Schaible, R-Mott.
About $211,683 of the grants awarded so far have been withdrawn, resulting in total awards through March of $19.1 million, plus $100,000 in administrative expenses.
If the revenue forecast holds, the fund will end the biennium with a shortfall of $803,942. However, the funds aren’t spent until the projects are complete, so between revenues from this biennium and next, there should be sufficient funds to cover the grants, according to Legislative Council.
Unruh said the bill will likely end up in a House-Senate conference committee to hash out the differences.