By CHRIS YAGELO
Capital News Service
LANSING — Key conservation and environmental groups are optimistic that voters will approve proposed changes to the state’s Natural Resources Trust Fund this summer.
The trust fund revision will be included in a proposed amendment to the state constitution that could appear on the August primary ballot.
Annual revenues earned from the sale of mineral rights and natural resources by the state provide the money for the trust fund.
The Department of Natural Resources initiated the proposal after discussions with conservation and environmental organizations.
The DNR then approached the Legislature, which passed a Senate joint resolution and filed it with the secretary of state on March 5.
DNR Director K.L. Cool said the amendment would raise the cap on the trust fund from $400 million to $500 million.
The proposed changes would also remove a provision stating that when the principal of the fund reaches $200 million, the state can no longer spend a full one-third of the mineral revenues. Also, the state treasurer would be allowed to modernize the investment of the principal of the fund.
“The 25-year-old constitutional amendment needs to be upgraded to meet modern needs,” Cool said.
The proposal may appear on the August primary ballot, rather than the November ballot because the state does not want to upset the current granting cycle that begins in September.
“The constitutional amendment, which will be Item 2 on the ballot, would provide important changes that would improve the trust fund,” Cool said.
Having the proposed amendment on the August ballot will definitely improve the chances it will pass, said Melissa Soule, director of communications for the Lansing-based chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
“People that vote in primaries are generally more educated on topics,” Soule said. “We hope that they will read the papers and watch the news on TV and realize that this is a good change.”
The Nature Conservancy strongly supports the proposed changes.
“If we don’t make these changes, we stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars for conservation,” Soule said.
The Michigan Environmental Council, based in Lansing, also believes that the changes are necessary.
“(The changes) should generate more funds for state parks and environmental funding,” said James Clift, the MEC policy director.
“It’s not necessarily the fact that the current system needs change. The proposal is designed to improve on the current system.”
Officials at the Michigan United Conservation Clubs agree.
“The proposed changes would provide more revenue which would in turn provide more recreational opportunities, such as parks,” said MUCC policy director Dennis Fox.
“As the trust fund and the State Park Endowment Fund are part of the state constitution, any changes need to be voted on by the citizens.”
Environmental groups expressed one concern with the proposed changes. They believe that allowing the investment of the fund on the stock market might be risky.
“The stock market changes every day, so investing is always a risk,” Clift said. “We would like to see (any investment) kept on the conservative side.”
Cool is optimistic about the chances of the proposal.
“We believe this will have a lot of support and it will pass. Our hope is that there will be enough of an interest (among the voting public),” Cool said.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By CHRIS YAGELO