- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 21, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The North Dakota Legislature voted Tuesday to increase the funding cap for the state’s oil tax-supported Outdoor Heritage Fund, though the goal may be moot with slipping crude prices.

House members endorsed the measure 81-10 and hours later sent it to the Senate, which approved it 40-7 with no debate.

The Legislature established the fund in 2013 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. Tuesday’s votes set the cap at $40 million for two years.

But even with the increase, Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, told fellow House members the fund is projected to get only $22 million over the next two years due to low oil prices.

“It certainly is not going to fill the full $40 million,” he said.

The fund was at the center of a failed ballot initiative last November that had conservation advocates pushing a proposal for an even bigger slice of North Dakota oil tax revenues for the fund to benefit water, wildlife and parks projects.

About two months before the election and in an effort to head off the constitutional amendment, Gov. Jack Dalrymple proposed raising the cap to $50 million. Additionally, the governor proposed investing an additional $30 million in new funds to improve state parks throughout North Dakota. That funding, which is part of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation budget, has been cut to $13 million and still awaits approval by the House and Senate, said Mark Zimmerman, the agency’s director.

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.

The legislation headed to Dalrymple’s desk also converts the two seats on the 12-member Outdoor Heritage Fund board currently held by Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever to at-large seats for conservation groups.

The two groups had been part of the failed ballot initiative though lawmakers have said removing them from the board was not retaliatory.

“They essentially removed seats for two of the largest habit groups in the state,” said Steve Adair, director of Ducks Unlimited’s office in Bismarck. “It’s curious.”

That brings to four the number of unnamed at-large conservation seats on the board that considers grants for projects. Porter said designating the four seats as at-large gives all conservation groups a fair shot at holding a seat on the board.

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