LANSING, Mich. (Legal Newsline) -- Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, in a formal opinion issued this week, says the state's Natural Resources Trust Fund cannot be used for the maintenance of existing public recreation facilities, including maintenance dredging of existing harbors.
"The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund cannot be used as an ATM," Schuette said in a statement Monday.
"The voters enshrined the Trust Fund in our constitution for a very specific purpose: to preserve and protect Michigan's bountiful resources for generations to come. The message is straightforward -- hands off the Trust Fund."
In March, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation appropriating $21 million from the state general fund and the Michigan State Waterways Fund for emergency dredging projects required due to low water levels in the Great Lakes.
However, Schuette said his office has continued to receive questions from others about whether the Natural Resources Trust Fund could be used for similar projects in the future.
"This opinion should put the speculation to rest. Maintenance dredging projects cannot be funded by the Natural Resources Trust Fund, period," the attorney general said.
"Here, the relevant language of Const 1963, art 9, § 35 is 'the development of public recreation facilities,'" Schuette wrote in his 12-page opinion Monday. "As used in this context, 'development' or 'develop' means to: 'convert (land) to a new purpose by constructing buildings or making other use of its resources.'
"Thus, the term 'development' of public recreation facilities can be understood to mean projects to construct new facilities where there were none before, or to change the purpose or function of existing public recreation facilities."
He continued, "Under this definition, the recurring dredging of existing harbors needed to maintain sufficient depth for navigation does not qualify as the 'development' of public recreation facilities. Rather, such dredging constitutes the 'maintenance' of previously developed public recreation facilities, i.e. '[t]he work of keeping something in proper condition; upkeep.'"
Schuette said "as worthy and necessary a purpose dredging may be," particularly in light of the lakes' levels, such use of the trust fund money would constitute misappropriation.
"The Legislature is certainly free to seek to amend art 9, § 35, as it has successfully done in the past, to permit the use of Trust Fund money for this purpose," he wrote.
"But until that time, the words of the constitution prohibit use of the Trust Fund as an expedient source of revenue to solve this pressing public policy concern."
While the money from the fund cannot be used for the maintenance of existing facilities, including dredging, Schuette noted that there is an additional funding revenue that may be pursued in the future for certain public dredging projects.
The Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, he wrote, provides for "the use of funds in the Waterways Account of the Michigan Conservation and Recreation Legacy Fund for operation and maintenance of public recreation facilities, including the dredging of existing harbors."
However, expenditures from the Waterways Account must be limited to public recreation facilities and "the primary purpose of the dredging must be to enhance access for recreational watercraft."
The attorney general issued the opinion at the request of state Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at email@example.com.