Michigan citizens value a healthy environment, and generously support government programs to protect natural resources. The Clean Michigan Initiative, however, unnecessarily inflates the state's debt load, fails to adequately address Michigan's most pressing environmental problems, and lacks realistic objectives.
This failure stems in large part from a policy grounded more in politics than science. The CMI is predicated on the notion that suburban sprawl is environmentally hazardous and publicly funded brownfield cleanups will slow "greenfield" development. In fact, many developers and their clients prefer the suburbs for a variety of entirely rational reasons, including better city services, lower crime rates and higher educational standards. Thus, environmental contamination appears to inhibit urban reinvestment less than a host of other thorny economic, regulatory and social problems plaguing some urban centers.
We also note that funding decisions on brownfield sites were made prior to an independent evaluation of potential results. Thus, the Departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources essentially guessed whether tens of millions of dollars invested in specific brownfield cleanups and recreation grants would spur private investment and job creation as promised. Government has not proven its ability to outguess private investors.
Unlike a number of other states, Michigan restricts CMI grants to public entities. But entrepreneurs are, in general, far better equipped than civil servants - no matter how resourceful - to judge development prospects and maximize cleanup efficiency.
The CMI funding priorities, in some respects, may actually thwart program goals. For example, state officials favored cleanups "likely" to attract large industrial development over smaller sites suitable for commercial growth. This conflicts with current investment trends, while expanding already substantial corporate subsidies.
By creating two dozen new programs, the CMI has further enlarged government bureaucracy and exacerbated environmental politics - both of which frustrate a judicious allocation of funding. For example, requiring a "fair" geographic distribution of CMI funds skews environmental priorities. And apart from the CMI, the DNR already administers $60 million annually through some 20 other recreation grant programs - in addition to $3.45 million in federal funds. The DEQ, meanwhile, has allocated more than $766 million toward environmental cleanups in the past decade
Seemingly more justified is allocation of $90 million for water quality improvements. But given the hundreds of millions of dollars already funneled through a multitude of international, federal, state and local Great Lakes programs, the CMI provisions are redundant. Consolidating and prioritizing these various efforts would likely produce more results.
Stricter environmental enforcement against local units of government would also prove productive - albeit politically problematic. For example, of the 315 so-called escalated enforcement cases initiated by the DEQ between 1991 and August 2002, some 43 percent involved government entities such as municipal or county-run water and sewerage systems.
The balance of CMI funds may return some marginal benefits. But indulging in large-scale borrowing eases the budgetary discipline that otherwise demands spending priorities. It also strains government's ability to maintain adequate oversight of programs, which seems to be lacking in the Clean Michigan Initiative.
Lacking fiscal discipline, well-reasoned priorities and realistic goals, the Clean Michigan Initiative represents unsound public policy. To the extent more substantive environmental issues go unresolved, the CMI may actually undermine natural resource protection.