- Associated Press - Monday, September 29, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Gov. Jack Dalrymple announced a two-year plan to spend millions of dollars more of oil tax revenues to improve conservation and North Dakota’s park system, in an attempt to head off approval of a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that could force the state to spend billions more.

Republican Dalrymple unveiled the plan on Monday, calling it fiscally sound, sustainable and an “approach I feel is the right way to go.”

Republicans have supermajorities in the Legislature and Dalrymple said his proposal has strong support from lawmakers.

The Legislature established the state’s new Outdoor Heritage Fund last year to restore land affected by energy production and to develop fish and wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation areas. The fund is capped at $30 million for each two-year budget cycle. The governor’s proposal would raise the cap to $50 million and invest an additional $30.4 million in new funds to improve state parks throughout North Dakota.

North Dakota has just over 14,000 acres of state park land, the fewest of any state except tiny Rhode Island, according to data from the National Association of State Park Directors.

Dalrymple said more than 1 million people visited North Dakota’s 13 state parks last year. His proposal would increase campsites at those parks by more than 10 percent, as well as construct cabins and other amenities. The governor’s plan also calls for transforming 200 acres of prison-owned land south of Bismarck into a park that would provide access to the Missouri River.

Conservation advocates are pushing a proposal for an even bigger slice of North Dakota oil tax revenues for a fund to benefit water, wildlife and parks projects. Sponsors of Measure 5 gathered more than 41,000 signatures to get it on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Backers of the measure want 5 percent of the state’s oil extraction taxes over the next 25 years, a sum opponents said would set aside almost $5 billion during that time for conservation projects at the expense of other state needs. Jon Godfread, chairman of the anti-measure group North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation and vice president of the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, called it a “massive money grab.”

North Dakota’s budget office estimates the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment on the November ballot would collect $260 million during the 2015-17 budget cycle, if passed.

Carmen Miller, a backer of the measure and policy adviser for Ducks Unlimited in Bismarck, welcomed the governor’s initiative but said it does not go far enough.

“Voters can make a decision earlier and have a chance to do something about this now,” she said of the November vote.

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