A. Bond Costs

Our examination of fiscal consequences focuses on the cost of borrowing to finance CMI programs, and the effect of that borrowing on the state's debt load.

Overall, the Legislature appropriated nearly $389 million for CMI programs between fiscal 1999 and 2001. Not all the funds have actually been spent, as dozens of projects are in various stages of completion. But an appropriation effectively reserves bond proceeds for designated uses.

The sale of general obligation bonds inflates by 60 percent the total cost of the initiative. To date, three CMI bond series have been issued to raise $153,620,000. But in addition to repaying this $153 million in principal, the state also owes bondholders an additional $91,234,136 in interest. Legal and administrative services related to the three bond issues cost an additional $346,000. Thus, the state must repay about $1.60 for every dollar spent on CMI projects.

The borrowed funds augment General Fund appropriations for conservation, environment, recreation and agriculture programs, which have increased 42 percent in the past decade, from $358 million in fiscal 1991 to $618 million in fiscal 2001. [17]

Determining whether bond debt is a fiscally sound method of financing environmental protection is a complex calculation. Borrowing may be sensible if the consequences of not doing so will prove more onerous than the resulting debt service. But just as with personal finances, borrowing can be simply a way to avoid spending discipline.

In evaluating whether bond sales are warranted, account must be taken of whether all General Fund monies are already being spent on more pressing matters. That is, the added costs of bond sales would be unjustified if general tax revenues that do not carry debt service are being spent for subordinate purposes.

In the case of the Clean Michigan Initiative, this heavier debt load does not appear justified in that a substantial portion of the money is reserved for commercial, recreational and aesthetic improvements that will yield relatively minor environmental benefits.

Michigan's debt load has increased substantially in the past decade. Between 1991 and 2001, for example, the ratio of general obligation bond debt to total General Fund expenditures doubled. Per-capita bond debt rose 59 percent in the same period. Meanwhile, Michigan's per-capita debt load relative to other states has worsened considerably in recent years. The state ranked 36th nationally in state debt per capita in both 1980 and 1990, but had jumped to 24th by 1997. [18]

The high cost of CMI borrowing has worried some lawmakers. "It's like paying rent with a credit card," said State Rep. Paul Gieleghem, D-Clinton Township. [19]

Source: State of Michigan Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, 2001.

These added debt costs are all the more questionable given the substantial gains in environmental quality already achieved at substantial cost over the past three decades. Billions of dollars worth of new technologies already have dramatically reduced industrial and automotive emissions. Carbon monoxide concentrations have been reduced 57 percent; lead 94 percent; sulfur dioxide 50 percent; and nitrogen dioxide 25 percent. Forestland, too, is flourishing, now covering 44 percent of the state. The rate of wetland loss is in decline. [20]

Great Lakes wildlife, meanwhile, is thriving, indicating healthier waters. Wild trout have rebounded, with hatchery stocks comprising less than 20 percent of the trout population in Lake Superior. The bald eagle population has increased from just 50 nests in 1961 to 366 in 2000. [21]

All the good news forces environmental activists and their regulatory allies to target increasingly marginal environmental problems that cost far more to address.

We next examine whether CMI objectives are realistic and to what extent the funds allocated to date have achieved these objectives.