Three words describe my feelings about the campaign the opponents of Measure 5 (the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Constitutional Amendment) have run this year: Disingenuous, Dishonest and Disgusting.
“Disingenuous,” because they buffaloed the poorly-led farm organizations into opposing a measure from which the members of those organizations would have been the major beneficiaries. Some Farmers Union members I have talked to are furious with their leadership. Here’s why. If the measure passes, it’s going to put about $125-150 million dollars a year into the hands of the North Dakota Industrial Commission to spend on conservation. There’s only one way I can think of to spend that much money in a year: Pay farmers to take marginal land out of production and create wildlife habitat. The Industrial Commission, which gets to have the final say in how the money is spent, is likely going to tell the Game and Fish Department and the state Agriculture Department to develop a form of state-funded CRP. CRP was the tremendously popular program started by the federal government in the mid-1980s, which paid farmers, at that time, around 35-40 dollars an acre to plant cover crops on marginal land to get some cropland out of production, to ease surpluses of crops like wheat, to raise prices paid to farmers, to inject money into the farm sector. It saved a lot of marginal farms.
But the side benefit was that it created wildlife habitat which led to record numbers of deer, ducks and pheasants in the states which had a lot of CRP. Everybody won. But now CRP is fading away, the result of cuts in U.S. farm program funding and higher crop, mostly corn, prices the last few years. But as corn prices fade, CRP is again looking attractive, and if the state had its own program, paying farmers, say, $100 an acre to take a million acres out of production and put it into grass, that would be a direct injection of $100 million a year into the farm sector. And a huge boost to the North Dakota economy. Plus, it would revive flagging populations of deer, ducks and pheasants, which is the goal of those sponsoring the measure. Once again, everybody wins.
The Farmers Union, generally the most pro-conservation of the farm groups, made a major mistake siding with the Chamber of Commerce and the North Dakota Petroleum Council. It’s hard to imagine they really did believe those groups, who planted a seed that the money was going to be used to buy land, in competition with new and existing farmers. The Farmers Union has been the staunchest defender of the state’s anti-corporation farming law, and they know that that law would prevent that from happening. I have to believe their opposition is more about putting all the detail that is contained in Measure 5 into the State Constitution. More about that in a minute.
I called the campaign led by the Chamber and the Petroleum Council “Dishonest” because that’s exactly what it is. Early on, they just made up some things that were completely untrue and began hammering away at them in press releases and letters to the editor. The two biggest lies: All the money in this measure is going to go to out-of-state conservation organizations, and they are going to spend it buying land, which will drive up the price of farmland. They were Big Lies, and the theory behind Big Lies is that you just keep telling them over and over and eventually people will believe they are true.
A series of masterfully crafted letters to the editor written by then-Odney Advertising PR guy Rick Collin, spooned out to willing members of the groups to sign and send to the state’s newspapers, created the New Truth that the money was going to out of state conservation groups to buy land away from beginning farmers. The letters slacked off with the sudden mysterious departure of Collin from the agency in late summer. (Some said he didn’t want to be associated with the Republican ad and PR firm as he competed for the job of State Historical Society Director. I don’t know. I asked him but did not get an answer. Anyway, I’m a blogger—my job is to speculate, not investigate.) But Chamber PR flack Jon Godfread took up the slack, and the campaign is closing around those two lies, and proponents of Measure 5 are doing a poor job of rebutting that pair of powerful arguments.
The whole thing is “Disgusting,” because the campaign by the oil industry and the Chamber has taken politics down to the lowest level North Dakota has ever seen. Disgusting because the groups continue to perpetrate those lies and no one in the media challenges them. The Chamber flack Godfread repeatedly says the money is going to out of state conservation groups, when he knows it is not, because the measure clearly says that the money will be spent by the Industrial Commission members, and they are surely not just going to hand it over with no restrictions to anybody. Here’s his latest, the first sentence of a letter printed in the Forum Oct. 9 and signed by somebody else:
“North Dakotans will be writing a blank check to nonprofit organizations that are more concerned about ducks than people if they pass Measure 5.”
WE know that this is not true, but not everyone does, and a lot of people only know what they read in letters to the editor. And some of them actually vote. I fault the editors of the daily newspapers almost as much as the Chamber folks for this, for allowing these obviously false letters to be printed. If I were an editor again, I would either tell the person who signed the letter (who knows who actually wrote it?) that I wouldn’t print something that is obviously not true, or else I would print it with a disclaimer at the end of the letter that said “I received this letter, which is full of lies. I only printed it to show my readers what sleazebags the people campaigning against this measure are. I don’t care how you vote on this, but don’t believe anything you read in this letter.”
And then Godfread says, in the same letter, the measure will use “a pile of money that would be pulled away from other resource needs in North Dakota, like education, roads and other infrastructure, property tax relief” which is also not true. And then there’s his favorite line, which he gets others from the farm groups to say, that the money in the conservation fund is going to be used to buy land, when he knows that our corporation farming laws forbid that.
Truly a disgusting campaign by what has become a truly disgusting organization.
But when no one refutes those arguments, they become true in the minds of otherwise uninformed voters. And no one is refuting them.
Which is why I believe my feeling about the sponsors of the measure can be summed up in one word: Disappointing. The leaders of these sponsoring organizations are good-hearted men with little political savvy, and it shows. It showed first in their drafting of the measure, putting way too much detail into the Constitution for North Dakotans to stomach. So much detail that opponents have been able to use that successfully to detract from the importance of the measure to North Dakota. Editors of the Forum, who sometimes get it right on initiated measures, used that, and only that, to tell their readers to vote against it. Not that the Forum has a lot of credibility these days. They could have saved a lot of ink on their editorial pages this year by just printing one editorial that says “We endorse all Republicans.”
Disappointing in that the sponsors have failed to call the opponents’ dishonesty into question, choosing instead to run a series of mushy, feel-good TV and radio spots while opponents tear the measure apart with untrue claims. Claims that work.
The measure’s sponsors started this campaign with 70 per cent of North Dakotans agreeing in principle that conservation was good and saying they would support some kind of vaguely worded measure to set aside money from the oil tax for conservation purposes. According to a new poll by the Forum, the opponents have whittled away at those numbers with their negative campaign, and now less than half of presumably voting North Dakotans approve it. Anyone who’s been around politics as long as I have knows that you have to respond to negative attacks, to refute them if they are dishonest, and that in the end, if the voters hear both sides, truth generally prevails. Sponsors certainly have enough money to do that, according to campaign finance reports disclosed last week. If they don’t do it soon, I fear they will have lost their one big chance to really do something for conservation in North Dakota.
More than a year ago, I was invited to supper at a local restaurant with wildlife and conservation leaders and Legislators who had expressed an interest in this issue to discuss plans for this measure. I was told they were planning this constitutional amendment, the one we are voting on now. I warned against it, advising that the people of North Dakota like conservation, but don’t like changing their constitution. I suggested a statutory change that simply added money to the existing Outdoor Heritage Fund and removed the state’s prohibition on perpetual easements, so that land purchases would not be needed and the argument by any opponents that the money was going to be used to buy land would be moot. Or, I suggested, they could write a broader statutory change which might include much of the language in this proposed measure, but amending the state law containing the Outdoor Heritage Fund rather than adding to the Constitution.
If they insisted on a constitutional change, I thought something like a short sentence that said “Five per cent of oil extraction tax revenues will be allocated to a conservation fund,” and then let the Legislature work out the details. Trying to add more than two-thousand words to the constitution, as this does, just doesn’t make any sense to me. (You can read the measure by going here.)
Still, I hope I am wrong, and I think there’s still a chance it could pass by the narrowest of margins if the sponsors of the measure put a little more backbone and a lot less mush into their closing campaign. The Chamber and the oil industry are playing hardball. I haven’t yet figured out what raised their ire about this, causing them to attack it with such vitriol. That’s a subject for another day, I guess. Sponsors have to play the same kind of hardball. Just the fact that their cause is just, doesn’t translate into a winning campaign. Ask a thousand losing candidates. There’s a reason candidates and committees run negative campaigns: They work.
Here’s a tip to the measure’s sponsors. The big winner if this measure passes is wildlife, because of all the money that will go into making habitat. Beneficiaries of that are farmers who will get payments to take land out of production (can you say $64,000 clear profit on a section of land growing grass and trees—every year?), and hunters, who already know the benefits of CRP to wildlife. It’s probably going to take about 115,000 votes to pass this measure November 4, given the historically low voter turnout in years when there is no presidential election. Let’s just say there are about 80,000 hunters in North Dakota. And let’s just say there are about 35,000 farmers. Hmmm.
A bunch of good-hearted men and women and their organizations are willing to put up a couple of million dollars and thousands of hours of hard work to give the people and the critters of North Dakota the biggest gift they have ever received. They’ve almost won. I really hope they don’t blow it now. But I’m pretty worried.