Readers: How would you allocate the Natural Resources Trust Fund? Note your opinion in poll at the end of this story.
Sen. Tom Casperson, R- Escanaba, is anything but undeterred.
In late February, he and another Republican proposed altering the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, a long-standing pot of money that the state uses to buy land and improve recreation facilities. Sen. John Moolenaar of Midland proposed spending it on dredging. Casperson supported the dredging bill and also proposed using the fund for “road and trail maintenance on any state owned land.”
Two months later, Attorney General Bill Schuette essentially killed both bills, issuing a formal opinion that they violate the Michigan Constitution.
But Casperson, who chairs the senate’s Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes Committee, says he’s not giving up quite yet.
The 1984 constitutional amendment Scheutte cited clearly defines the trust fund’s acceptable uses as recreational development and land purchases. So his opinion didn’t come as a shock to many, even Casperson.
“I’m more disappointed, but I don’t know if I could say I’m surprised,” he said, acknowledging that he was aware of the amendment while drafting his bill.
So why propose a bill almost assuredly headed for doom? More importantly, why is he continuing to pursue those two bills that are now barely on life support?
A tempting source in troubling times
The interest on the $500 million trust fund finances state land purchases and recreational improvements as diverse as public pool renovations and installing handicap accessible restrooms at state parks. The money comes from oil, gas and mineral royalties on state-owned land.
Now that the trust fund has reached its cap, excess revenues are deposited into the State Parks Endowment Fund until that reaches its cap of $800 million. (As of the last annual report in 2012, it was at approximately $171 million.)
The State Parks Endowment Fund can be used for maintenance projects like those Casperson is trying to get funding for, like road and trail upgrades in state parks. But the demand for those projects far exceeds the available funding.
Since the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund’s inception in 1976, it has contributed more than $919.1 million in grants — many of which funded the over 1,250 projects for state and local recreation projects, according to the state’s most recent report,
“The thought behind [the trust fund] is that extracting oil and gas takes a toll on the environment; this helps offset that damage a little bit,” said Hugh McDiarmid, communications director of the Michigan Environmental Council.
That sentiment didn’t always ring true. Over the long history of the trust fund, politicians have often viewed it as a tempting way to fix funding problems elsewhere.
“There’s money sitting there with a single purpose that’s being effectively managed — they don’t use the fund all at once, and they use the interest,” said Chuck Nelson, a forestry professor at Michigan State University. “That is an invitation to people who are trying to pull themselves out of financial holes.”
In 1976, its first year in existence, the fund was used as a loan source to replace and fix double bottom tankers. Twice in the early 1980s, lawmakers raided it for a total of more than $70 million to make up for general budget shortfalls. That money was never repaid. And in 1983, former Gov. James Blanchard tried to take money from the fund to pay for his anti-unemployment program, Youth Corps.
In 1984 voters, worried that the fund would be drained, voted 2-1 for a constitutional amendment to prevent future diversions. The purpose of the trust fund has been static ever since.
“[Now] the money is being spent just as voters determined it should be when they put these restrictions for the trust fund into the state constitution,” said Ed Golder, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
That doesn’t mean lawmakers have resisted trying to get their hands on the fund. Michigan State Rep. Dave Agema authored a 2011 proposal to take the majority of the money out of the fund — and put 60 percent into the Michigan Transportation Fund and 20 percent into the State Aeronautics Fund. It failed.
And it appears that history is repeating itself.
Failure to yield
The logical question remains: With an apparent lack of support, and a constitutional amendment designed to prevent exactly what these legislators are proposing, why propose such bills?
There is strategy behind authoring such doomed bills, Nelson said. They allow for self-portrayal as a budget balancer and appeal to certain constituent groups.
“There’s a political advantage to these bills — it doesn’t matter if they got shot down, you can say you tried,” he said.
Casperson says the political motivation is located elsewhere. The trust fund board tends to ignore certain projects, like trail upgrades for the motorized recreational groups that his bill supports, he said.
“Anyone who proposes different uses [of the fund] is perceived as not having a pure heart and using it for political reasons,” he said. “But there are those in the trust fund who seem to have preference for certain interest groups. Is that not political in nature? It seems like it is.”
Casperson said that after consulting with some fellow senators, he will cautiously move ahead with his bill and support moving ahead with Moolenaar’s dredging bill.
“It’s our understanding that we, the legislature, have the ability to change this,” he said. “We can’t control the fund, but I think we have some legislative latitude in broadening what they can use that money for.”
“You cannot use legislation like this to change what’s in the constitution,” said Erin McDonough, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. “The constitution trumps legislation every time.”
Michigan United Conservation Clubs has backed the protection of the trust fund for decades; it was one of the first groups to lobby for the constitutional amendment.
Regardless of the constitutionality, the public would never support the measures, Nelson said.
“If [these bills] ever got to the voters, they’d be blown to smithereens.”
Casperson remains cautiously hopeful. The issue here is one of concept and perception, and less about contradicting the state constitution, he said. As long as others broaden their perceptions of what is considered development, his proposed projects for recreational trails and roads could be legally funded with the trust fund.
And even if the views of McDonough and the attorney general stand, Casperson will consider further action – including changing the constitution.
“Let’s say we don’t win, and our ideas are deemed unconstitutional,” he said. “I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be right to have that conversation about amending the state constitution.”
Using bad language to fix potholes?
If the bills advance, the language of Casperson’s may be a critical problem — for both himself and his opposition. It called for trust fund dollars to be used for “any state owned” roads and trails… as in many of the streets and freeways we take to go to work or the supermarket.
Casperson emphasized that this is not what he meant.
“When we talk about road maintenance, I don’t want [money from the fund] to go towards filling potholes on a regular street,” Casperson said.
The situation he was trying to avoid, he said, is unfairly turning down projects for recreational roads and trails that happen to also be used for commercial purposes like logging.
He said he will fix the language of his bill to clarify his intentions, but he doesn’t “know how to put it yet.”
Nelson believes that the language was more than just a case of semantics.
“When you write a bill, you work with the legislative services bureau, you tell them exactly what you want,” he said. “There’s no oversight like that.”
Clarifying his intentions is just another hurdle that he will have to overcome in much needed reform to the trust fund, Casperson said.
To Nelson, it’s just another reminder that no one can resist a big pot of money — the reason voters enshrined the fund’s function in the constitution.
“State parks are extraordinarily valuable to us now, and they will be a hundred years from now,” he said. “But this long-term thinking is not the thinking of people who are facing elections every two years.”
Editor’s note: Lindsay Dunbar and Chelsea Mongeau contributed to this story.