Group launches official campaign against N.D. Measure 1

By Josh Francis

Forum News Service

FARGO – Organizers of a group opposed to a state ballot measure in November that they say would ban abortions and could put restrictions on doctors providing end of life care launched their official campaign on Tuesday.

North Dakotans Against Measure One set up shop in a downtown Fargo office and began calling voters and organizing their effort to defeat the measure they say is a direct challenge to the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion.

The group says if Measure 1 is approved, it would affect all North Dakotans because of its vague wording.

The proposed constitutional amendment states: “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.”

Karla Hanson of Fargo, the group’s spokeswoman, said the measure is an attack on personal health care.

Amending the state constitution to ban abortion is the obvious intent of the measure, Hanson said, but there would be other impacts.

“I originally got involved with fighting this legislation because of the potential prevention of infertility treatment,” she said.

Hanson claimed if the measure passes, the few doctors in the state who offer infertility treatments would be forced to end those services because of fear of criminal liability under the new law.

The office was bustling Tuesday as the group of about a dozen volunteers began their effort to defeat the measure.

Molly McLean of Fargo, field manager of the Fargo office, said this isn’t a women’s issue, it’s everyone’s issue.

She said there already have been efforts by opponents of the measure to open dialogue with voters about how Measure 1 would adversely affect personal health care decisions, including end of life care decisions.

Retired Dr. Ted Kleiman, a pediatrician for 39 years, said the measure would hinder doctor-patient relationships and would allow government to become an unwanted third wheel in that relationship.

“This is a disgrace; this kind of measure takes away choice … This vaguely worded language in any constitution is hazardous,” Kleiman said.

Hanson said there is support from Republicans and Democrats for their campaign, and their outreach will extend to all demographics in the state.

The measure was put on the ballot by an overwhelming majority vote in the state Legislature, but Hanson said that doesn’t indicate how North Dakotans will vote.

“I think North Dakotans do their own research and make their own decisions and they’ll look at all the consequences of the measure,” Hanson said.

The campaign also has offices in Bismarck and Grand Forks.

Supporters of the measure, ND Choose Life, said they are prepared to fight for passage of the measure.

“We are arming ourselves with the facts,” said Shelle Aberle, ND Choose Life’s communications director.

Her group also touts bipartisan support and says their measure would not ban abortion despite opponents’ claims.

ND Choose Life’s website states that experts in law, health care, bioethics and elder care have released a statement claiming Measure 1 will not affect the ability of North Dakotans or their families to make health care decisions at the end of life.

Valley City tax extension for flood plan also could fund wellness center

By David Luessen

Forum News Service

VALLEY CITY, N.D. — Valley City residents will vote in November on whether to extend an existing half-cent sales tax that would help fund a permanent flood protection plan for the city.

However, the City Commission will decide Aug. 19 whether to add an item to the ballot that would use a portion of the funds to build a $16 million wellness center for the city.

Jennifer Feist, executive director of the Valley Development Group and director of development for the Valley City-Barnes County Development Corp., pitched the idea to the commission Tuesday. The VDG proposes using 11 percent of the money generated from the half-cent tax to fund construction of the Valley City Health, Physical Education and Wellness Center, with the other 89 percent going to the flood plan.

Feist said that if the commission decides to tag the center’s construction costs to the tax, the ballot measure would be worded to let people vote for extending the tax to cover both projects, or just flood protection.

“It will be stated on the ballot so it’s very clear, so the public knows exactly what they’re voting on; that rests in the hands of the city,” she said.

City Commissioner Madeline Luke said she expects the vote for flood protection to pass, but wasn’t sure how the wellness center vote would go.

“I think people want flood protection; it’s a negotiation now whether it’s going to be just flood protection or whether the wellness center is going to be a part of that, and I think there’s a difference of opinion on how to proceed,” Luke said. “My thought is that if you want flood protection you vote for flood protection, if you want a wellness center you vote for a wellness center. You don’t do the two together.”

Valley City voters approved the sales tax to fund construction of the Hi-Liner Activity Center at Valley City High School, which opened in 2004. The tax is set to expire June 30, 2023, or when the bond and loan for the building have been paid off, which is expected to happen in late 2017. Feist said the commission may move to rescind the sunset clause.

The move to extend Valley City’s half-cent sales tax stems from the city’s permanent flood protection plan that began its formulation in 2011. That year saw the city’s second-worst flood in history, with the worst flood occurring two years earlier.

The first phase of the plan included buying out 46 riverside properties for the installation of permanent levees. The buyout’s total cost was $4.5 million, with $1.4 million coming directly from the city and the rest from the State Water Commission.

Earlier this year, the SWC awarded the city $12.5 million in an 80-20 percent cost share for the construction of flood walls, with $2.5 million of that being a loan to be repaid by extending the sales tax if voters approve.

The VDG will hold a public information meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Hi-Liner Activity Center for residents to pose questions on the proposed wellness center. Feist said the center’s focus will be on families and the growing elderly population in Valley City.

“We’ve got limited facilities and that’s not meeting the needs of the population, and our Park and Rec Department, their programs are growing,” she said. “It would be handicapped accessible and it would be user friendly.”

The facility would need to be on VCSU property because of a $1 million grant the VDG is seeking from the North Dakota University System’s Challenge Fund.

To qualify for the grant, the physical education and physical sciences courses at VCSU would be located at the wellness center. Feist said the center also would house cardiac rehab and physical therapy programs, a full gym with a walking track, a swimming pool and hot tub area, as well as a child-watch area for short-term day care needs.

If the wellness center is added to the November ballot and passes, Feist said she expected construction to begin next spring or summer.

Personhood amendment backers respond to end-of-life claims

By Mike Nowatzki

Forum News Service

BISMARCK – Supporters of a North Dakota ballot measure aimed at banning abortion are preparing to distribute a “white paper” to counter what they claim are misleading statements by opponents about the measure’s potential impact on end-of-life health care decisions.

Voters will decide Nov. 4 on the proposed constitutional amendment, which states: “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.”

A group backing the measure, ND Choose Life, has assembled a four-page document that cites state and federal law and past court decisions in an attempt to refute opponents’ claims that the measure could interfere with end-of-life health decisions and directives.

The paper will be sent to most North Dakota churches and “tens of thousands” of voters in ND Choose Life’s database, spokeswoman Shelle Aberle said.

It was prompted in part by a July 16 opinion letter in the Grand Forks Herald by Steven Morrison, a member of North Dakotans Against Measure 1 and assistant law professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law, as well as other letters to the editor.

Morrison – who said he was speaking individually as an expert in constitutional law – called the personhood amendment a “vaguely worded provision” and warned that it could result in criminal charges against someone who orders a doctor to disconnect life support according to their spouse’s living will.

He also disputes proponents’ claims that the amendment won’t affect existing laws, saying “constitutional provisions render statutes unconstitutional all the time.”

Rodger Wetzel, a retired social worker, former eldercare director at St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck and one of 14 people who signed on to the white paper, said opponents are trying “to create doubt without substantive legal background” and that federal and state law “very clearly” recognize a patient’s right to determine their own health care.

Proponents point to a section of state law that says adults have the right to make decisions relating to their own health care, “including the decision to have health care provided, withheld, or withdrawn,” and another section that authorizes health care directives by the patient or someone appointed to make those decisions for the patient.

“One can take one’s personal opinion, or one can say, ‘What does our state and federal law currently state?’ ” Wetzel said.

Morrison said the right to make medical decisions isn’t absolute under the U.S. Constitution, and that he’s not claiming the personhood amendment will or won’t render the state statutes unconstitutional.

“What I’m saying is it could, and it’s going to be up to the courts to determine the scope of the effect of Measure 1,” he said, predicting that, if passed, the amendment will lead to a lot of legal challenges “in many different areas of the law.”

The 2013 Legislature passed a resolution putting the measure on the ballot, with Republicans accounting for all 26 “yes” votes in the Senate and all but three of the 57 “yes” votes in the House.

Others listed on the white paper include attorney and state Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, Rep. Karen Rohr, R-Mandan, North Dakota Catholic Conference general counsel Christopher Dodson and former Lt. Gov. Rosemarie Myrdal.

Aberle said the white paper will be posted at www.ndchooselife.com. Morrison’s letter can be found at http://ndam1.org/2014/07/28/must-read-piece-grand-forks-herald-measure-1-personhood-measure/.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com.

Sponsors turn in 16,500 signatures for ballot measure on later school start

By Mike Nowatzki

Forum News Service

BISMARCK – Supporters of changing North Dakota law to force school districts to start classes after Labor Day said they delivered about 16,500 signatures to the secretary of state’s office Wednesday with hopes of putting the question to voters in November.

The measure needs 13,452 valid signatures to get on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Kelly Heinert of Mandan, co-chair of the sponsoring committee, said based on the support received during the signature gathering process, “I feel very confident come November it will pass.”

If voters approve the measure, North Dakota would join Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia as one of a handful of states that require a post-Labor Day start, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association.

Most schools in North Dakota start classes before Labor Day, with the most common starting date this year being Aug. 25, according to Department of Public Instruction spokesman Dale Wetzel. A few schools are starting in September, including Bismarck, which starts Sept. 2, the day after Labor Day.

“So there’s a precedent set,” Heinert said.

The measure is one of three now under review by Secretary of State Al Jaeger. Another five are set for the ballot.

If all eight wind up in voters’ hands come November, it would be the most ballot measures since the June 1996 election, which had nine.

“We’ve had these kind of numbers before,” Jaeger said Wednesday, but “we haven’t had it recently.”

The elections of November 1980, December 1989 and November 1990 each had eight measures, Jaeger said.

Four measures submitted by the state Legislature would, if passed, amend the North Dakota Constitution to reflect the right to life “at every stage of development,” prohibit mortgage taxes, create a three-member commission to govern higher education and forbid ballot measures that allocate funds to specific purposes. An equal number of citizen initiatives may join the ballot.

The high number of ballot measures may mean higher voter turnout, said Stephen Nicholson, an associate professor who studies ballot measures at the University of California, Merced.

North Dakota is a low user of initiatives and other forms of direct democracy compared to states like California, Oregon and Washington, Nicholson said.

He added that ballot initiatives are not necessarily a sign of frustration with government.

“There’s really very little relationship between the willingness to sign a ballot … and satisfaction or dissatisfaction,” Nicholson said.

Supporters of the school measure believe students should be able to enjoy the outdoors and have more of a summer when the weather is nice in late August, he said.

“It’s just a quality of life issue,” he said.

Co-chair Linda Striebel of Bismarck said they’ve also have heard concerns from teachers, especially in rural areas, about the effects of an earlier school start and hot conditions on students in schools with no air conditioning.

“These kids are not learning at the end of August,” she said.

A DPI official has said the department believes districts should be allowed to set their own school calendars. Heinert said districts would still have control of their calendars, only with a later start date. He said a lot of Minnesota districts squeeze in their school year between Labor Day and Memorial Day, though he acknowledged that isn’t possible some years when Labor Day lands later in September.

Heinert said the sponsors are “just a group of parents” and aren’t planning to buy campaign ads to promote the measure, but they will support any outside groups if they decide to do so.

Jaeger has 35 days to determine if the signatures are sufficient to place the measure on the ballot.

Adrian Glass-Moore contributed to this report.

Ballots off by 300 in Foster County recount

By David Luessen

Forum News Service

CARRINGTON, N.D. — Ballots in the June 10 election for Foster County Commission were recounted Monday, and the number of physical ballots did not match the number of ballots recorded on the election machines the county used.

The recount board counted 1,153 ballots that were sealed away in the county recorder’s vault, and the poll books had 1,153 names checked off, but the number submitted to the North Dakota Secretary of State’s Office was 1,453.

County Auditor Teresa Risovi said she discussed the matter with the secretary of state’s office and believes a glitch or corruption in the ES&S M100 voting machines’ memory cards may be to blame.

“Since we have an even number of 300 (ballots), that number is kind of ironic because we had three machines, and I ran 100 test ballots through each machine, required by law,” Risovi said. “Now those counts, I zeroed out and I have the receipt tape — it prints out register tape — and it shows them zeroed out, and the election board members signed that.”

Risovi said three election board members were on the recount board, and they confirmed the numbers matched after the polls closed in the county’s only polling place at Carrington City Hall on June 10. The M100 has a visual display that showed the numbers matched, but Risovi believes the 100 test ballots were still on the memory cards but were erased from the machine. She said she intends to have the cards checked or replaced before the next election in November.

State’s Attorney Paul Murphy, who also attended the recount, said he plans to account for all the ballots that were ordered by the county because “nobody’s really sure where these phantom 300 votes are.”

“Until we figure out how many ballots we ordered through the auditor’s office,” Murphy said, “how many were sent out and not returned, how many ballots were spoiled, how many ballots were sample ballots and how many ballots were actually voted, plus the ones that were never voted, until we figure out what A plus B plus C equals — and it should equal how many we ordered — we’re not sure where those 300 votes are.”

The recount board was demanded by Foster County Commission candidate Donnie Theis after a recanvassing of the June 10 election on July 28. In the election, six candidates ran for four spots on the November ballot, with the top four vote-getters going on to race at large for the two commission seats up for grabs.

Theis had finished in fifth place behind current commission Chairman Paul Straley by 15 votes. The canvassing board threw out two ballots it had previously accepted, which shortened Straley’s lead to 13 votes and made the difference in the race exactly 2 percent, entitling Theis to demand a recount at his own expense.

Risovi said the canvassing board will meet again, possibly on Monday, to review all the ballots the county has in its physical possession.

Backers of later school start in N.D. to file signatures for ballot measure

BISMARCK – Sponsors of a proposed ballot measure that if approved would force North Dakota school districts to start school after Labor Day say they have more than enough signatures to get the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot.

A post Tuesday on the Facebook page “Start ND School after Labor Day” indicated the sponsors will file more than 15,300 signatures with the secretary of state’s office Wednesday.

They need 13,452 valid signatures to put the issue to a statewide vote.

Supporters say the change would spare students from hot classrooms on late-summer days in schools with no air conditioning and also help families with their end-of-summer vacations. Most North Dakota schools begin classes in late August.

A state Department of Public Instruction official has said the department believes districts should be allowed to set their own school calendars.

The November ballot already contains five ballot measures, and signatures for two more are under review. The school measure could push the total to eight measures if all are approved for the ballot.

State lawmakers previously placed four measures on the ballot, and a shared-parenting initiative was approved for the ballot last month. Sponsors of a proposed constitutional amendment to create a Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks fund and trust submitted signatures Monday for Secretary of State Al Jaeger’s review. Jaeger’s office also is reviewing signatures for a measure to change North Dakota’s pharmacy ownership law.

Education groups join push against outdoor fund

By Helmut Schmidt

Forum News Service

BISMARCK – If petitions delivered to state officials Monday check out, North Dakota voters will vote this fall on a politically divisive proposal to set aside some oil-tax money to protect natural areas and wildlife.

Members of North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks delivered petitions with more than 41,000 signatures Monday to the Secretary of State’s Office, petitions seeking to put a proposed amendment to the state constitution on the Nov. 4 ballot. Backers needed 26,904 signatures.

The petitions still need to be validated. The deadline for verification in Sept. 8.

The proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment would set aside 5 percent of the state’s oil extraction tax revenues for outdoor needs, starting in the next biennium.

“We have a unique opportunity to invest a small portion of the funds the oil industry is already paying to our state, without raising taxes, to protect the things that make North Dakota, North Dakota,” said Steve Adair, director of Ducks Unlimited – Great Plains Region, who is chairman of the committee sponsoring the measure.

A widespread coalition is opposing the proposed fund, including business and agricultural groups.

At least two statewide education groups are also against the proposal: the North Dakota Council of Education Leaders and the North Dakota School Boards Association.

However, North Dakota United, which represents most of the state’s teachers and many state, county and local municipal employees, is neutral on the issue, that group’s president said.

Education opposition

The required set-aside has been estimated at $300 million for the coming biennium, but could go as high as $400 million, said Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo.

“In this economic environment, $300 million is still a boatload of money,” which would no longer be available for schools, roads or social services, said Flakoll, chairman of the Interim Education Funding Committee.

“I get pretty protective of education issues because I realize the long-term value,” Flakoll said.

A spokeswoman for Ducks Unlimited questioned Flakoll’s estimate of the set-aside, saying the Office of Management and Budget has estimated that it would be closer to $150 million over the biennium.

That number is based on the April 2013 legislative forecast for the 2013-15 biennium.

“We can do all of these things and do them well” with the current budget situation, said Carmen Miller, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited – Great Plains Region.

Aimee Copas, executive director of North Dakota Council of Education Leaders, said the set-aside for the outdoors fund would come off the top of North Dakota’s total tax revenues, leaving schools to compete with a wide range of other interests for a smaller pool of money.

The amendment, could “do some detrimental damage to the budgets” of many groups, including K-12 schools, Copas said Monday. “It could potentially take quite a bit of money off the table that could support our kids. We just simply can’t support that way of doing things.”

Jon Martinson, executive director of the North Dakota School Board’s Association, said the group balked at the potential size of the conservation fund.

“My role is to advocate for education and education funding,” Martinson said. “The amount of money, I think, is just an incredible amount.”

Martinson said the state already has a number of groups that spend money on outdoors issues, including the Game and Fish and Parks and Recreation department, soil conservation districts and the $30 million allocated for the Outdoor Heritage Fund.

Martinson said school enrollment has not just been jumping in the western Oil Patch but around the state. Those students have to be funded, he said.

“If you take $300 million off the top, we’re concerned where we have to be,” Martinson said. “Our needs are increasing as well.”

Union stays neutral

Nearly every member of North Dakota United’s 20-member board voted to remain neutral on the amendment after hearing presentations from both sides, President Nick Archuleta said.

Archuleta said board members felt it was too early in the debate to make a decision. The board also didn’t have a good idea of the general feeling of the membership of the labor group, made up mostly of teachers and other public employees.

“We’re just going to wait and see how it goes,” Archuleta said. “Both sides were happy to see us take a neutral stance.”

Miller said teachers throughout the state would benefit from the outdoors amendment.

“The proposed fund has a very specific outdoor education component,” Miller said.

Supporters of the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment include some big hitters in the conservation world, including Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, The Nature Conservancy, The National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society.

In all, there are than 90 endorsing organizations, plus individuals and businesses from throughout North Dakota, and the list is growing, Miller said.

“Main Street North Dakota loves this measure,” she said.

A campaign against the proposal, North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, says groups opposing the amendment include the state Chamber of Commerce and the chambers of several of the state’s largest cities, including the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck-Mandan, Minot and Williston.

Agricultural group opposition includes the North Dakota Farmers Union, North Dakota Farm Bureau, North Dakota Farm Credit Council, grain, corn, soybean and ranchers’ groups and the Ethanol Producers Association.

The North Dakota League of Cities and the North Dakota Association of Counties also stand in opposition, along with groups representing implement dealers, motor carriers, builders, the oil, gas, coal and petroleum industries, Realtors, landowners, utility shareholders and credit unions.

Election Briefs

Tax commissioner challenger floats tax breaks for military

FARGO — The Democratic challenger for North Dakota tax commissioner is proposing an income tax break for all active-duty and retired military service members in the state.

Astrup calls it his “Saluting Their Service Tax Cut” proposal, which would provide an income tax exclusion for any portion of benefits and pay that are taxable on an active-duty military service member’s federal tax return.

It would cost the state about $1.8 million annually to exclude retirement benefits from taxation, and about $1.9 million annually to exclude the pay of active-duty service members.

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Challenger Sinner outraises Rep. Cramer in latest quarter

WASHINGTON – The Democratic challenger for North Dakota’s lone U.S. House of Representatives seat outraised Republican incumbent Rep. Kevin Cramer in the last quarter.

State Sen. George Sinner raised nearly $350,000 from April 1 to June 30 while Cramer raised about $236,000, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Sinner also spent more in the three-month period, with expenditures totaling $109,160, while Cramer spent $86,852 from April through June.

Cramer brought in significantly more campaign cash in the first quarter, raising $270,000 from January through March. Sinner raised about $33,000 in the same time period, but he had only joined the race in mid-March.

Cramer’s total cash on hand was at about $653,000 by the end of June, and he started the year with about $293,000 on hand.

Sinner’s cash on hand by the end of June was at about $274,000.

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Democratic challengers to PSC accuse Republicans of ‘governing by emergency’

FARGO – Two Democratic challengers vying for seats on the state’s Public Service Commission are accusing the Republican incumbents of “governing by emergency” and of failing to lead when it comes to rail access and safety.

Sen. Tyler Axness, D-Fargo, and Todd Reisenauer were in Fargo on Tuesday promoting their RAILS Plan, or Railroad Access and Increased Line Safety, which they say would improve rail infrastructure, require railroads to submit commodity data to the state and create a state rail inspection program.

The two Democrats said incumbents Brian Kalk and Julie Fedorchak, both Republicans, lacked leadership, both before and after December’s fiery oil train derailment and explosion near Casselton.

“Try as they might, they cannot hide from the fact that the current commissioners were in office when that crude trail struck a derailed grain train and exploded near Casselton, causing prolonged fear in our communities across the state of North Dakota,” Axness said, “while 30 other states showed leadership to act and create a rail inspection program before an incident occurred.”

Axness, who represents District 16 in the state Senate, is running against Fedorchak for a special two-year term on the commission. Reisenauer, a Fargo-based independent business consultant, is campaigning against Kalk for a normal six-year term.

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Public Service Commission candidates want oil spill oversight consolidated

By Michael Hricik
Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Tyler Axness and Todd Reisenauer, Democratic candidates for the North Dakota Public Service Commission, say too many state agencies investigate oil and gas pipeline spills, causing a “bureaucratic disaster.”

They would like to consolidate state oversight over oil spills to the PSC to eliminate confusion.

“The current system defies common sense,” said Axness, D-Fargo.

The PSC currently has general jurisdiction over pipeline utilities engaged in the transportation of gas, oil, coal and water, according to the North Dakota Century Code.

The federal government and five state agencies, however, investigate spills as they occur now, Axness and Reisenauer said.

PSC Chairman Brian Kalk said he had also expressed confusion on where responsibility lies in the investigation process.

During a presentation on Thursday morning in Bismarck, Axness and Reisenauer displayed a sign with an undated quote from a previous North Dakota Farmers Union meeting that Kalk attended.

“There is such a quagmire of jurisdictional responsibility for pipelines, it’s a challenge when an incident occurs and who is responsible to do the investigation to see what happened,” Kalk said, according to the sign.

Kalk added he worked with state legislators during the last legislative session to clarify pipeline regulation laws. He said his quote was correct, but he was quoted before meeting with the legislative assembly.

Now the state’s Industrial Commission investigates spills on gathering lines, which transport gas and oil to processing facilities, Kalk said. The PSC oversees investigations within the state’s borders, and the federal government guides interstate investigations on major pipelines.

Kalk also said he worked to increase maximum violation fines in the cases of pipeline spills and added a pipeline safety investigator to the PSC’s staff during the last legislative session.

If either is elected in November, Axness and Reisenauer said they would implement what they have dubbed the “VIP” plan, an acronym standing for the Verification of the Integrity of of Pipelines.

First, an audit would occur for all pipeline infrastructure statewide.

“If we can map out this infrastructure and make it an open database for people to search, we feel like we can drastically reduce the number of accidents that happen,” Reisenauer said.

Second, the Democratic candidates said they would ask the next Legislature to consolidate jurisdiction of all state pipeline infrastructure to the commission.

Kalk said he doubts the Democrats’ plan would pass through the Legislature.

“The service commission is not a dictatorship. There are legislative rules you have to follow,” Kalk said.

Third, Axness and Reisenauer said they would “improve partnerships with the federal government, private industry, landowners, and municipalities,” according to the plan.

Finally, the PSC would “exercise its existing jurisdiction and authority” under the plan.

Axness, who represents District 16 in the state Senate, is running against incumbent Republican Julie Fedorchak for a special two-year term on the commission. Reisenauer, a Fargo-based independent business consultant, is campaigning against Kalk, also a Republican.

Group claims signatures for conservation measure gathered illegally at polling sites

By Mike Nowatzki
Forum News Service

BISMARCK – A group opposing a proposed measure that would set aside millions of dollars in North Dakota oil tax revenue to create a conservation fund claims the petition’s sponsors had people illegally gathering signatures at polling places Tuesday — a claim the head of the sponsoring committee denied.

Jessica Mongeon of Grand Forks, N.D., collects signatures Tuesday, June 10, 2014, for a proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment outside the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.

Jon Godfread, chairman of the opposition group North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, said signature gatherers for the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment were stationed outside entrances of voting locations at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks and at Horizon Middle School in north Bismarck.

North Dakota law prohibits signature gatherers from approaching people while they are in a polling place or trying to enter or leave a polling place. The ban applies within 100 feet of any entrance leading into a polling place while it’s open for voting. Violating the law is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

Godfread said he observed the signature gatherer outside Horizon Middle School.

“I didn’t get out a tape measure to see if they were 100 feet away or not, but if you look at the spirit of the law, there was kind of a bottleneck there. I think it was kind of tough for voters to avoid that,” he said.

Stephen Adair of Bismarck, chairman of the petition’s sponsoring committee, said its legal team looked into the law beforehand and all signature gatherers were instructed to be 100 feet or more away from the polling sites and to not talk to people until after they voted.

“We don’t have any indication that people did not follow those instructions. They were told to be as careful as they could be. They checked in with election officials at all the sites they were with to make sure they were comfortable where they were,” he said. “We kind of feel like this is a little bit of the other side trying to bully some of our volunteers that are out there gathering signatures.”

Godfread, vice president of government affairs for the Greater North Dakota Chamber, one of 30 groups opposing the proposed measure, said the coalition plans to file a complaint with the state’s attorney in Grand Forks County and has also reached out to the North Dakota secretary of state’s office and Burleigh County auditor’s office.

“We will certainly be following up as we move forward,” he said.

The petition’s sponsors need to collect at least 26,904 valid petition signatures by Aug. 6 to get the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. Conservation groups supporting the proposed measure include Ducks Unlimited, the Audubon Society, Pheasants Forever and The National Wildlife Federation.

Signature gatherer Jessica Mongeon, a Grand Forks resident, said she’d been at the Alerus Center entrance since 7 a.m. At around 3 p.m., she said she had collected about 75 signatures. A polling judge at the Alerus Center was brought in to make sure she was set up at least 100 feet away from the building.

“We needed more signatures to get on the ballot for the November elections,” she said. “There are a lot of qualified voters here today to get our support. A lot of people have been positive, but there’s been a few negatives. If anyone asks us to leave, we will. We’re not interfering with people voting. We’re just trying to get this on the ballot.”

Godfread said the signature gathering was reminiscent of sponsors’ efforts two years ago, when their petition was rejected by the secretary of state’s office because it contained faked signatures collected by paid signature gatherers.

Adair said the opposition group was “grasping at straws.”

“That was certainly an unfortunate thing, and we’ve learned a lot from that,” he said. “Our people are very well coached and trained out there, and we’re doing all we can to be within the letter of the law.”

As proposed, the conservation fund would annually receive 5 percent of the state’s share of oil extraction tax revenue. Ten percent of the annual revenues would go into a trust, and the other 90 percent would be used to award grants for conservation projects, land acquisition for parks and outdoor education. At least 75 percent of the revenue would have to be spent every two years.

The two sides disagree on how much money the fund would receive, with supporters projecting $75 million to $100 million per year and the opposition group estimating $150 million to $200 million annually based on projected oil production rates.

Figures provided by the state Office of Management and Budget in February show that had the fund been in place for the 2013-15 biennium, it would have collected about $147 million, based on tax collections at that time and projections for the remainder of the two-year budget cycle.

Trent Opstedahl contributed to this article.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com.