Attorney General Rules on Using Natural Resources Trust Fund for Dredging

Today’s MIRS reported that Attorney General Bill Schuette issued an opinion that the Natural Resources Trust Fund 523px-BillSchuette2011Inaugurationshould not be used for maintenance activities, such as the dredging of harbors. MTGA is extremely grateful for this opinion.

Schuette: Hands Off Natural Resources Trust Fund

Despite the introduction of legislation attempting to do so, Attorney General Bill SCHUETTE today issued a formal opinion with a clear message: Stay out of the Natural Resources Trust Fund (NRTF).

“The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund cannot be used as an ATM,” said Schuette. “The voters enshrined the Trust Fund in our Constitution for a very specific purpose: To preserve and protect Michigan’s bountiful resources for generations to come. The message is straightforward — hands off the Trust Fund.”

As MIRS previously reported, there had been discussion about an opinion on the NRTF issue in the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) (See “DNR Wants AG Guidance On NRFT Money For Dredging,” 3/22/13). It was DNR Director Keith CREAGH who requested the opinion.

The 12-page opinion says that according to the constitution, the NRTF cannot be used for maintenance of existing public recreation facilities, including the maintenance dredging of existing harbors.

Sen. Tom CASPERSON (R-Escanaba) sponsored SJR Q, which would allow the NRTF to be opened up to additional uses. MIRS asked what he thought of the AG opinion.

“I’m not going to debate him if he’s made an opinion,” Casperson said. “Certainly, the Trust Fund can be revised with a constitutional amendment and put before the people that way”

He said there would be conversations about that option.

“Just because he’s made a ruling doesn’t mean it’s done,” Casperson said. We’ll have a public debate on it.”

He said he believes the NRTF has a “bias” against motorized activities like off-road vehicles (ORVs), which he said is the largest growing activity in northern Michigan.

“That’s our economy,” he said.

Casperson wants NRTF money to go to ORV trails, as well as fixing existing parks, bridges and facilities. But he said that the percentages for spending are “tilted heavily” toward purchases of new land, which means that officials’ “hands are tied” to keep buying more land even if they don’t want to.

“I’m looking for balance and I’m not seeing a lot,” he said.

However, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MLCV) today lauded the move.

Thank you, thank you, thank you,” said Lisa WOZNIAK, Executive Director of the Michigan LCV. “The Attorney General’s opinion is a huge victory for Michigan’s natural resources and affirms what experts, statewide leaders and Michigan residents have been saying all along: Hands off the Natural Resources Trust Fund.”

The Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) also had good things to say about Schuette’s opinion.

“The Natural Resources Trust Fund was meant to create long term outdoor recreation benefits for the people of Michigan, both current and future generations, said MUCC Executive Director Erin McDONOUGH. “Michigan United Conservation Clubs, along with the Michigan Oil and Gas Association, have protected it for those purposes since its creation. We thank Attorney General Schuette for issuing this opinion to protect the Trust Fund for acquisition and development. We’re also happy to see that it identifies a more appropriate funding source for dredging with the Waterways Account.”

In the opinion, Schuette outlined the low water levels and federal dredging backlog that had led some to question whether money from the trust fund could be spent on dredging and other maintenance purposes.

“The short answer to that question, as explained below, is no,” wrote Schuette.

Doing so, wrote Schuette, would constitute the Legislature substantially changing the meaning or scope of the constitutional language adopted by the people.

He said the constitution was properly understood to direct NRTF dollars to one-time expenditures to build or expand facilities for long-term use, as opposed to paying for recurring costs needed to maintain facilities that already exist.

“As worthy and necessary a purpose dredging may be, particularly in light of present lake levels, such use of Trust Fund money would constitute a misappropriation, contrary to the expressed intent of the Legislature that created the Trust Fund, and as approved by the voters of this State,” wrote Schuette, saying the Legislature could possibly seek to amend the constitution to allow for such a thing.

However, he did note that the Waterways Fund could be used for dredging purposes — a good thing, since Gov. Rick SNYDER recently signed legislation appropriating $10 million from that fund toward a dredging fix (See “Emergency Dredging Bill Signed, Long-Term $10M Problem Remains,” 3/27/13).

The language around the Waterways Fund, said Schuette, specifically allows for maintenance-type projects.

“This opinion should put the speculation to rest. Maintenance dredging projects cannot be funded by the Natural Resources Trust Fund, period,” said Schuette.

The opinion is Attorney General Opinion 7270.