Dredging bill could open up Natural Resources Trust Fund
A search for existing dollars that could be used for road funding might include the Natural Resources Trust Fund.
House Bill 4106 would amend the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act to allow interest from the NRTF to be used for dredging.
Gov. Rick Snyder is asking for $11.2 million to dredge harbors on the Great Lakes. If the legislation was enacted and used to fulfill this request, it would free up general fund dollars for other uses — including transportation spending.
"Let's free up this money," said Rep. Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck, the sponsor of the bill. "We need to protect our Great Lakes and other natural resources. But we also need to protect our residents from higher taxes.
"Keep in mind that my bill is only about using the interest from the trust fund, not the fund itself," he said.
The NRTF is primarily funded from the leases of the state's mineral and oil rights. At times it has had as much as $500 million in it.
Using dollars from the interest on the NRTF in a manner that makes other funds available may be a piece of the $1.6 billion Snyder wants to upgrade Michigan's transportation infrastructure. It could be one of many possible steps toward preventing or minimizing tax or fee increases for road and bridge funding.
The NRTF is protected under the state constitution. It states that, "The interest and earnings of the trust fund shall be expended for the acquisition of land or rights in land for recreational uses or protection of the land because of its environmental importance or its scenic beauty, for the development of public recreation facilities, and for the administration of the trust fund. . ."
Part of the debate over House Bill 4106 centers on whether dredging harbors would fit into that definition.
Environmental groups are lining up in opposition to Rep. Genetski's bill.
"We're opposed to using the trust fund for dredging," said Hugh McDiarmid, spokesman for the Michigan Environmental Council. "We believe dredging is a regular practice that should be budgeted for as such. We do not believe it is the sort of thing that the trust fund was meant to be used for."
Another issue involving the NRTF is how much more land acquisition is practical. About 25 percent of the land in Michigan is owned by either the state or federal government. Also, a law passed in the last legislative term caps the amount of land that can be purchased through the NRTF.
Rep. Genetski said he's confident his bill is constitutional.
"We believe there have been precedents,” he said. "But I must say that I've been amazed by how some bureaucrats have reacted to this bill. There seems to be a lot of push-back. I'm not talking about the Department of Natural Resources, I'm talking about some individual bureaucrats.
"There are a lot of these dedicated dollars in state government," Rep. Genetski continued. "We should be looking closely to make sure they're being utilized efficiently. I don't think we should be asking for more money from drivers or anyone else until we've taken advantage of existing funds."
Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for the Snyder administration, said House Bill 4106 is being studied.
"The staff at DNR is evaluating the legislation on the use of trust fund dollars to determine whether that proposed use — dredging — would conform to the constitution," Buhs said. "We don't yet have a position on the legislation."