Article IV, Section 52, of the 1963 Michigan Constitution addresses the need for environmental protection and the Legislature's role in assuring that protection. It reads, "The conservation and development of the natural resources of the state are hereby declared to be of paramount public concern in the interest of the health, safety and general welfare of the people. The Legislature shall provide for the protection of the air, water and other natural resources of the state from pollution, impairment and destruction."
Michigan must deal with a widespread pollution problem that threatens health and hinders the attractiveness of the state to new industry. For various reasons, it isn't always possible to fix blame or exact compensation from guilty parties for environmental impairment. In many of those cases, state involvement in the restoration process is both advisable and perhaps inevitable. Toward that end, the $800 million environmental clean-up bond proposal first suggested by the Governor in his State of the State address was not a bad idea--until the specifics were put on the legislative table a few weeks ago.
At a time when estimates of the cost of cleaning up the state's environment go as high as $2-$4 billion, every penny of the proposed $800 million is needed for that purpose. But that's not what the proposal calls for and as a result, passage of it by the Legislature may well meet with the measure's defeat on the November ballot.
As a recent Detroit News editorial pointed out, $275 million of the bond sale would be allocated not for environmental programs, but for economic development ($125 million) and improvements in state and local recreation facilities ($150 million). The economic development portion lacks specifies and constitutes a huge barrel of pork which Lansing politicians can use, as The News put it, "to reward their friends and buy votes back home." What's being sold as an environmental initiative is only partially that; a chunk of it is something else entirely and surely of lesser priority at the moment.
Article IX, Section 15, of the Constitution provides that the State may borrow money for specific purposes in amounts as may be provided by acts of the Legislature, adopted by a vote of two-thirds of the members elected to and serving in each house, and approved by the majority of the electors voting thereon at any general election." The blank check for unspecified, non-environmental clean-up items in the bond proposal would seem to run counter to that constitutional mandate. The House turned down an amendment by Rep. Sikkema which would have required more specifics, and sent the more flawed version on to a Senate committee, where it presently sits.
Financing an $800 million bond issue over the 22 years anticipated works out to about $1.63 billion at 8 percent, or an average annual payment by the state in interest of $74 million. Though a revenue shortfall seems unlikely this year, the next national recession could radically change the situation. That suggests even more strongly that what monies the bond issue raises should go to clean-up, not pork barrel projects. Local recreational projects should be financed locally and state parks (which handled a record attendance last year) could raise user fees if monies are needed there. In any event, fiscal responsibility, the Constitution, and the pressing need for environmental clean-up require that the bond proposal itself be cleaned up. The Legislature should act to make sure $800 million raised for the environment actually is spent for the environment!
Dr. Nash is provost of the Michigan Campus of the Richard DeVos Graduate School of Management at Northwood University. He is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Permission is hereby granted to print or broadcast this article, in whole or in part, with appropriate credit given to the author and to The Mackinac Center.