Proposal 1 raises issues related to the public trust doctrine — the idea that some public property must be used for the public’s benefit. While this doctrine has traditionally been considered in the context of managing resources associated with bodies of water and submerged lands, it has growing use in a myriad other legal, environmental and land management issues.
Considering the public trust doctrine in the context of Proposal 1, it would hold that state land belongs to the people of Michigan and should be maintained and developed to benefit the people of Michigan. By using proceeds from selling or leasing rights to develop state-owned minerals, oil and gas for the purpose of conserving and developing state lands for public use, the Natural Resources Trust Fund and State Parks Endowment Fund seem to align with this more recent application of the doctrine.
The constitutional language governing these trust funds — both in the current version and under the changes brought by Proposal 1 — allows for some spending that clearly provides benefits accessible to the broad public. But some authorized uses of these funds provide benefits that are narrower and appear less aligned with the public trust doctrine.
The purchase of land by the state for recreation and scenic beauty, as well as ecosystem services provided by protected areas, clearly provide a benefit to the public. This increases the opportunity for people to enjoy Michigan’s outdoors. The same could be said for improving recreation area facilities, as this can enhance the outdoor experience and lead to better enjoyment of public lands. The ecosystem services provided by protected areas, such as clean air and water, wildlife habitat protection and more, also provide benefits for all residents of the state.
Money spent administering these trust funds benefits the public at large as well, albeit in a less direct way. Administration is a necessary part of operations and therefore, provided that the operations are targeted toward the public’s benefit, administration of the fund would benefit the public as well.
In contrast, grants to local governments may or may not provide a direct benefit to all state residents. Grants from the NRTF are spent on public parks or recreation areas, which appears to benefit the public. However, local parks are less for the benefit of the people of the state as a whole and more properly seen as a benefit to local residents.
Grants to local governments that are used to purchase assets are even less aligned with the public trust doctrine. State assets are owned by the people of Michigan, and they have control over their use through their elected representatives. Local government assets, however, are owned by local governments. State residents who do not live in the jurisdiction where that asset is owned do not have a means to influence how that asset is used. Mitigating this issue, however, is the state’s requirement that projects funded by NRTF offer reasonable and appropriate access to the public. The issue of ownership and the public access requirement would be unchanged by Proposal 1.
Another aspect of the NRTF that appears to conflict with the public trust doctrine are payments to local governments in lieu of taxes. This occurs when private lands are purchased by the state and become no longer subject to local property taxes. Local governments and other taxing jurisdictions stand to lose revenue. Through the NRTF, the state can make payments to these local governments to make up for the loss of tax revenue.
Those payments ease the impact on the local governments from the transfer of the land and may benefit the local governments that assess taxes in those areas and the people they serve. But after the initial purchase, state payments to those local governments for the land the state purchased exist as a long-term cost to the state, and therefore, are not spent for the broad public benefit.
Overall then, the SPEF appears to be a better fit for spending revenue for the public’s benefit. It does not operate local government granting programs. It does not pay local governments in lieu of property taxes, and any lands purchased by the fund or improvements to state parks would clearly be owned by and accessible to all the people of Michigan.
Proposal 1 does not restrict or remove the potential of these funds to be spent in a manner that benefits a limited subset of the population. A failure to spend public funds for the broad benefit of the public remains an aspect of the NRTF whether or not the amendment is approved by voters. But it is important to remember that Proposal 1 commits the revenue from leasing or developing minerals, oil and gas on state lands to the NRTF in perpetuity. If the amendment is rejected, legislators would retain control over the uses of these revenues once the SPEF reaches it $800 million limit, and less overall money may be available for these purposes.
Legislators are entrusted to spend the public purse for the public’s benefit, as well. However, they are not bound to a public trust rationale when establishing their budgets. This reality requires voters to consider whether allowing future lawmakers to spend these revenues would be more in the public interest than the uses allowed by the NRTF and SPEF.
 James L. Huffman, “Speaking of Inconvenient Truths - A History of the Public Trust Doctrine,” Duke Environmental Law and Policy Forum 18, no. 1 (Sept. 2007): 1–104, https://perma.cc/ 633A-4VGG.
 Mich Const art. IX § 35.