A bill recently introduced to the Michigan House of Representatives (HB-4106, click here) is the latest attempt to divert funding from the “constitutionally-protected” Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF). This time, the plan is to expand the permitted use of funds to include dredging of Michigan’s harbors and waterways.
As we have written on this site on numerous occasions, the need for such funding comes as no surprise. Due to a variety of factors which have caused a lowering of Great Lakes water levels, many of Michigan’s nearly 60 harbors are in need of dredging — only six are scheduled for maintenance by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2013.
The unfortunate irony of this latest funding raid proposal is that it attempts to divert money from the MNRTF, as a solution to a problem which was caused by, you guessed it, diversion from a federal Trust Fund.
According to a letter written to House Conferees by Michigan’s U.S. Senator Carl Levin in May of last year, “The Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) and Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) were established in 1986 to strictly and efficiently fund U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) operations and maintenance purposes and ensure that our navigation system operates effectively. The HMT is a user fee charged against the value of imports and domestic cargo arriving at the nearly 1,000 U.S. ports and harbors and deposited into the HMTF, where they are then subject to appropriations. Yet only about half of the funds collected through a user fee charged on shippers are actually appropriated for harbor maintenance, threatening width and depth of American waterways.”
This federal user fee which generates approximately $1.5 billion per year would go a long way toward solving the commercial port side of the Great Lakes navigation problem. While we acknowledge that there are many recreational harbors here in Michigan which may not be helped even if the federal diversion problem were to be solved, a revision of this type of Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund use may well be the beginning of its end.
While there are at least some within the conservation community who may support the idea of short term or temporary non-traditional recreation-related uses of MNRTF money, this is not the gang to entrust with such reforms. Several of the names included in the list of bill sponsors were among those who have previously demonstrated animosity toward the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund in particular, and public land ownership in general.
It is worth recalling that the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund is essentially an endowment. Its corpus will need to perpetually fund most new state and local recreational projects, any future public land acquisitions and all of the property tax obligations which have been assigned. Just because the MNRTF seems to lack a large number of full time security guards, it should not consistently be targeted as the first bank to be robbed.
Since many ideas are already being advanced about what should be done with the State’s oil, gas and mineral royalty revenue after both the MNRTF and Parks Endowment reach their respective caps, perhaps this use could be included in a new Trust Fund which is dedicated to recreational maintenance activities together with fisheries and wildlife habitat improvement. These ideas would seem to be generally consistent with the past goal of earmarking revenue derived from non-renewable sources (oil, gas and mineral royalties) and directing them for use on public lands and recreation.
All that we really know for sure is that “one good diversion doesn’t necessarily deserve another.”
Below you will find a list of the bill sponsors, several of whom represent our northern Michigan region. Please consider calling their offices and asking them to reconsider their support of HB-4106. There is nothing innovative about trying to take money from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund for unintended uses. In fact, the long legislative history of such attempts is exactly why Michigan’s conservation community sought and secured constitutional protection for the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund in the first place.
State House Bill sponsors include: Genetski, Nesbitt, Zorn, Rogers, Schmidt, Haveman, Pscholka, Pettalia, Franz, McBroom, Somerville, McMillin, Pagel, MacMaster, Foster, LaFontaine, Poleski, Lauwers, Victory, Johnson, Price, Muxlow, Forlini and Rendon