- Associated Press - Monday, June 30, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Opponents and backers of a proposed North Dakota ballot measure that would funnel more money into water, wildlife and parks projects are in the midst of separate and well-funded media campaigns, with many millions - perhaps billions - of oil tax revenue dollars at stake.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said it may be the first time in North Dakota history that a marketing blitz has come before enough signatures have been gathered to get a measure on the ballot.

“This is not even on the ballot, yet for the last several months I have seen and read several things pro and con,” said Jaeger. “It’s a little unusual.”

The proposed ballot measure would funnel 5 percent of the state’s oil extraction taxes into the state’s conservation fund. That would raise about $150 million during the 2015-17 budget period, based on current production and oil prices. The current fund is capped at $30 million.

Supporters and foes of the measure began media campaigns in mid-June and each have spent more than $100,000 in advertising to date, officials from the groups said.

Opponents that include energy, farm and business groups say the state already provides money for conservation efforts, and they worry that a bigger fund would take away from other critical needs in North Dakota, including education, human services and infrastructure projects.

Supporters of the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Fund are trying to collect 26,904 signatures by Aug. 6 to get the measure on the November ballot, said Stephan Adair, director of Ducks Unlimited’s office in Bismarck and chairman of North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks, the measure’s sponsor.

Adair would not disclose the number of signatures gathered to date but said he’s certain enough will be obtained.

“We’re confident, real confident,” Adair said Monday. “We’re ahead of schedule and where we want to be.”

The group said it has more than 500 volunteers gathering signatures and will be prominent at Fourth of July celebrations across the state and at North Dakota’s State Fair in Minot, which attracts more than 100,000 people each July.

Meanwhile, North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation is airing advertising that questions groups behind the measure and its projected cost.

“We want people to make an informed decision,” said Jon Godfread, chairman of the anti-measure group and vice president of the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce. “Our goal is that people don’t hear only one side of the story.”

Godfread said the measure would set aside almost $5 billion over the next 25 years for conservation projects at the expense of other state needs. He said the measure is supported almost entirely from out-of-state interests.

“Anytime you look at measures, you have to look at who’s funding it and who’s going to benefit,” Godfread said.

Adair said the bulk of funding for the measure comes from national conservation groups but many have a presence - and employees - in the state. He said opponents - including chambers of commerce and organizations representing farming, ranching and energy interests - have members that include out-of state businesses.

Opponents include the North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents more than 500 companies working in the state’s oil patch; Lignite Energy Council; Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce; North Dakota League of Cities; North Dakota Association of Counties; North Dakota School Boards Association; the North Dakota Farm Bureau; North Dakota Grain Growers; North Dakota Corn Growers; and chambers of commerce from Minot and Grand Forks.

Conservation groups supporting the proposal include: Ducks Unlimited; Pheasants Forever; The Nature Conservancy; The National Wildlife Federation; and the Audubon Society.

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