Expect long lines at polling places Nov. 7 as Michigan voters consider five ballot proposals in addition to the usual list of candidates. Proposal 1, entitled "Constitutional Protection of DNR Funds," has received little publicity in comparison to high visibility ballot proposals like Proposal 2 (the "Michigan Civil Rights Initiative") and Proposal 5 (the education spending mandate).
Proposal 1, which was placed on the ballot by the Legislature, amends the Michigan Constitution to protect nine Department of Natural Resources accounts that are currently provided for by statute. The following DNR restricted funds would receive protection from diversion to other government uses:
- Forest Recreation Account
- Game and Fish Protection Account
- Off-Road Vehicle Account
- Recreation Improvement Account
- Snowmobile Account
- State Park Improvement Account
- Waterway Account
In addition, the Game and Fish Protection Trust Fund and the Michigan Non-Game Fish & Wildlife Trust Fund would be placed in the state constitution.
These accounts are funded by user fees and dedicated to specific activities. However, the Legislature has the ability to divert these funds to any other government spending priority or program.
The measure specifies how DNR resources can be spent within each fund. Permitted activities include such things as development and maintenance of facilities associated with a certain type of recreation, as well as the purchase of land and right of ways. The funds may include operational costs incurred by DNR as well as payments in lieu of taxes on state-owned land that has been or will be purchased through the dedicated fund.
Amending the state’s constitution should not be taken lightly by Michigan citizens. The constitution is a document intended to have an enduring presence and provide the backbone for our system of laws. Before amending the constitution, voters should determine if there is a serious problem that cannot be remedied any other way.
According to an analysis prepared by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, the Michigan Constitution would be lengthened by 6 percent (1,834 words) if proposal 1 passes. The CRC was only able to identify one example of funding being diverted from these accounts in the recent past. In fiscal 2002, the Legislature diverted $7.8 million from the Waterways Fund to help balance the state’s general fund balance.
As a former director of a state agency, I can attest to the fact that there is a considerable temptation for administration officials and legislators to raid dedicated funding sources during tight budget years — which is most years in Michigan — rather than reduce or eliminate noncritical state programs. But sportsmen and other outdoor recreation users have a right to expect that their hard-earned dollars spent on licenses and permits will be spent for the purposes intended under the law.
Even though Proposal 1 has not received much attention, it does involve the important issues of amending the constitution and accountability in government spending. These issues are worthy of careful consideration by Michigan voters.
Russ Harding is senior environmental policy analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.