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Broad coalition supports proposal to change how parks are funded

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

A campaign to amend the state Constitution has attracted a coalition of hunters, fishers, environmentalists, businesses and unions. The group calls the campaign “Vote Yes For Michigan Water, Wildlife, and Parks.”

The proposed amendment, the Michigan Use of State and Local Park Funds Amendment, will be on the November ballot. In 2018, the Legislature voted for it in a rare bipartisan move. It takes a legislative vote of two-thirds to put an amendment on the ballot.

The amendment would make changes to how two funds for parks and recreation could be spent.

The Natural Resources Trust Fund gets money from fees on oil and gas extraction on public land. Each year, interest payments are used to give grants to communities to acquire land for parks and develop recreational opportunities. At least 25% of each year’s funding must be spent on land acquisition. Nor more than 25% can be spent on local park development. That fund is also capped.

“So basically right now, there's a $500 million cap on the trust fund. And we want to be able to collect those oil and gas royalty revenues in perpetuity. So eliminating the cap lets us keep the money flowing into the fund forever,” said Conan Smith, Executive Director of the Michigan Environmental Council, one of the groups behind the “Vote Yes” campaign.

The proposed amendment would allow local parks to get grants to renovate existing parks. It would also eliminate the limit of 25% of the year’s funding and require at least 25% each year be spent on developing or redeveloping local parks.

The trust fund only grants money to municipal partners. But if a city doesn’t have matching funds, it’s out of luck.

“It is particularly difficult for the trust fund, though, to invest in major projects in urban areas. For example, if we wanted to put a big state park in Flint along the river, it would be very difficult for the trust fund to make that investment under the current formula,” Smith explained.

The other fund is the State Parks Endowment Fund. Any revenue from oil and gas fees that is above the trust fund’s $500 million limit goes into this fund. While the proposed amendment would eliminate the $500 million dollar limit, that would not happen until the State Parks Endowment Fund reached its new cap of $800 million. Since there’s about $283 million in that fund now, Senator Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) predicts it will take decades before it will hit that cap. Once it does, though, the Natural Resources Trust Fund can grow, funding new local parks and renovating old ones in perpetuity.

The proposed amendment would lift some restrictions on the Endowment Fund as well. Right now, earnings from that fund can only be used for land acquisition and capital improvements. If voters approve, money could also be used for park operations and maintenance.

The “Vote Yes” campaign stresses the measure would not raise taxes. “Since 1976, royalties from the state’s oil, gas, and mining industries have funded the MNRTF (Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund) and SPEF (State Parks Endowment Fund) for land protection and conservation and building public recreation facilities like trails, parks and access to rivers and lakes,” according to the campaign’s press release.

The coalition says the proposed constitutional amendment would not only be good for water, wildlife, and parks, but would also be good for the local economy and improve quality of life.

There is no organized opposition to the proposal at this point.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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