MARQUETTE - State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, said he will propose a state Constitutional change that would allow the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Board to grant money for harbor dredging and other improvements, including infrastructure upgrades at state parks.
The measure is expected to be controversial and would require approval from Michigan voters.
On Nov. 6, 1984, Michigan residents voted in favor of Proposal B, which amended the state Constitution and created the trust fund. The constitutional amendment required that oil, gas and other mineral lease and royalty payments be placed into the trust fund, with proceeds used to acquire and develop public recreation lands.
That action has strictly dictated where the money goes and protects its diversion to the state's general or other funds.
"People get all on edge when we talk about using the money from the trust fund that is in the natural resource realm," Casperson said. "But our approach isn't to take it out of the natural resource realm, we're asking that the people would consider broadening what you can spend it on in the natural resources."
Casperson said he has approached state officials about the idea, including the directors of the trust fund and Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
"None of them have said no," Casperson said. "But I think they're all nervous like, 'Boy, that's a pretty big lift, could we do that?' "
State Rep. Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck, recently introduced legislation in the House that would change granting legislation to allow trust fund money to be used for dredging of Great Lakes harbors for use by recreational watercraft.
With current trust fund grants, recipient communities match 25 percent of the grant. Genetski's bill - which has 23 co-sponsors including state Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan - would reduce the match to 10 percent for grants provided for dredging projects.
Casperson is among the members of a new bipartisan bicameral Legislative Waterways Caucus formed to address several important issues, ranging from invasive species and dredging to low lake levels, tourism and recreation.
Casperson said he has engaged the caucus to join with him to implement strategies to ensure Michigan waterways remain navigable. Casperson said legislation will be introduced over the next several weeks and referred to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes, which he chairs.
In those bills, Casperson will hope to streamline regulations for treating aquatic nuisance species and regulations that delay the maintenance of waterways, including dredging. He will also introduce the trust fund idea.
Casperson said of the interest off the $500 million in the trust fund now, 25 percent goes to local projects and 75 percent is traditionally used to buy more land.
"I don't think it's unfair to suggest - if we could broaden their horizons as to what they can spend it on - what if you just take a break for the next two or three years on buying more land and devote some of that money for fixing the infrastructure that we've got for our outdoor recreational activities, dredging would be one of them," Casperson said. "I see the same process with our trail systems. We're all talking about being a trail destination state promoting tourism. There's that money sitting there and instead we're buying more land instead of maybe looking at the infrastructure of what we've got and let's say let's fix it, build it so we've got the best on the planet."
James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, recently told The Detroit News his group would oppose diverting money from the fund.
"We think that there's still a lot of need and demand from local units of government for purchasing and developing recreational land," Clift said.
Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, is another member of the legislative waterways caucus. Booher said Gov. Rick Snyder understands the importance of the Great Lakes and applauded Snyder's commitment to dredging and his continued support for Pure Michigan.
Snyder's 2014 budget proposed last week included $9.4 million for dredging. To address the immediate need for dredging, Snyder will send a 2013 supplemental request totaling $21.5 million to the Legislature.
"Our thriving tourism, boating and fishing industries contribute billions of dollars annually to our economy and support thousands of northern Michigan families and small businesses," Booher said. "One of the most pressing issues requiring immediate attention is dredging our harbors."
Genetski said Michigan has nearly 1 million registered boats, leading to $4 billion in economic activity and 34,000 jobs. In the Great Lakes region, those numbers swell to $34 billion and 244,000 jobs.
On the federal level, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, recently said he planned to reintroduce legislation to improve maintenance of the nation's harbors, including those in the Great Lakes. Levin introduced the Harbor Maintenance Act in the last Congress. The bill would ensure that money from the more than $7 billion surplus in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is spent as intended on maintaining the nation's harbors.
Casperson concedes his Constitutional amendment would be difficult to obtain and he's not sure "where we'll get with it."
To change the trust fund granting provisions you would "need those involved heavily in the trust fund to see the vision and agree to it so that they come out positively with it to make people comfortable with it," Casperson said. "Because what I've seen in the past, is what they do is they demonize the Legislature: It's a money grab, they're trying to take the money and spend it somewhere else. That's not my approach.
"There's some colleagues of mine that have suggested using the trust fund for the highways. I don't think that's a good idea. I think the folks that put the trust fund together with the concept or the idea should be commended. I think what they came up with was pretty unique. So we don't want to ruin it. But I do think there's room for expanding it."
He said the change wouldn't even mean the trust fund board would have to use the funds any differently than it does now. It would just give them another "tool in their tool box."
"Let them decide the priority, that's fine," Casperson said. "To me it seems simple, but I know it's not."
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.