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Port: North Dakota needs a new land board commissioner

Despite what Land Commissioner Jodi Smith tells us, no schools are hanging in the balance.

PHOTO: Land Board Commissioner Jodi Smith
North Dakota Land Commissioner Jodi Smith listens during a Land Board meeting in March 2019. Forum News Service file photo
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MINOT, N.D. — If you took at face value some of the things Land Board Commissioner Jodi Smith has been telling the news media of late, you'd think a bunch of evil oil barons were out to get North Dakota's children.

There is a dispute between Smith's office and some oil companies over how royalty payments were calculated. The matter is currently before the courts in the form of two separate lawsuits.

One recent news report, featuring Smith's talking points, would have us believe that "schools hang in the balance" while oil and gas companies refuse to pay their royalties to the state.

This is nonsense.

Something contrived by Smith as an awkward attempt to pressure the oil and gas industry into paying disputed royalties.

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The Board of University and School Lands oversees the management of land, and the minerals underneath that land, which belongs to the state. The revenues accumulated through the use of that land for things like farming, or the lease of minerals for development by the oil and gas industry, go into the Common Schools Trust Fund.

According to Treasurer Kelly Schmidt , whose office holds a seat on the Land Board, the balance of that fund as of March 31 was over $4.1 billion, with the bulk of it coming from oil and gas activity.

Which brings us to Smith's schools-hanging-in-the-balance nonsense.

The Common Schools Trust Fund contributes to North Dakota's per-pupil funding. While its revenues may be suffering — mostly due to the pandemic-driven downturn in oil activity but also, in a very small way, by this dispute over royalties — it's also sitting on multiple billions in principle balance.

Despite what Smith tells us, no schools are hanging in the balance.

Even if they were, the culprit would be the pandemic and not a group of oil and gas companies waiting for the courts to weigh in on disputed royalties which weren't even included in the budget.

If the courts come down on the state's side, what the industry pays will be gravy.

Smith is trying to bully these companies into paying up before the courts weigh in.

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Why the animosity aimed at one of North Dakota's most important industries? Who knows.

Smith is operating in a leadership void. She doesn't act like it, but she does have bosses. People who were elected.

Gov. Doug Burgum, Secretary of State Al Jaeger, Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, Treasurer Schmidt and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem all sit on the Land Board.

All have been silent on this matter.

If they agree with Smith's verbal fusillades against the oil industry, why not own it instead of hiding behind their commissioner?

If they don't agree, why not rein her in? Or hire somebody who is better at the job?

The oil and gas industry pays many billions of dollars in taxes to the state and deserves better than Smith's machinations.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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