With the news that some Republican lawmakers in the state Senate are floating a proposal to modify the way the state’s Natural Resources Trust Fund (NRTF) Board of Trustees operates and its members are appointed, as well as requiring a new annual report to the state Legislature, among other things, we found ourselves perplexed because we aren’t aware that any modifications are necessarily needed in the way the NRTF conducts its business. In addition to what could easily become the politicization of the current five-member board through a proposed appointment process for two new members laid out in Senate Bill (SB) 1238, we’re not convinced that NRTF board procedures need significant changes. Although new reporting provisions in the bill don’t rankle us, what we see as an effort allow high-ranking partisan officials’ to stack the NRTF board with sympathetic appointees should prompt lawmakers from both parties to let the bill die in committee.
State Sen. Darwin Booher (R–Evart), who introduced SB 1238 last month, said the legislation — which has been referred to the state Senate Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes Committee, where it awaits a hearing — would provide transparency to the NRTF project and recommendation approval process.
The bill would require an annual report on unspent funds and the status of each approved project, including whether it has been started, whether it is currently being developed, and the timeline for completion.
It would also direct the NRTF board to give greater consideration to land purchases that would allow for increased recreational use.
Additionally, the bill would add two members to the NRTF board — both of whom would serve four-year terms and would be selected by the governor from a list of candidates prepared by the state Senate Majority Leader and state Speaker of the House.
Former members of the state Natural Resources Commission (NRC) would not be eligible for such an appointment.
The NRTF is a restricted fund that was established in 1976 to provide a source of funding for public acquisition of lands for resource protection and outdoor recreation. The funding is derived from royalties on the sale and lease of state-owned mineral rights.
The NRTF board is administered under the supervision of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). It consists of five members — the director of the DNR or a member of the NRC; and four Michigan residents who are appointed by the governor to serve four-year terms.
With six meetings annually to conduct its business, the main function of the NRTF board is to annually submit to the Legislature a priority list of lands recommended for acquisition and/or development. The board also provides guidance to DNR staff responsible for evaluating grant applications, making project recommendations and administering the projects funded by the NRTF.
Booher said his legislation would “ensure proper legislative oversight of state funds by banning the use of vague ecoregions and require the trust fund board to identify and score each individual project and then submit that full, detailed list for legislative approval.”
The DNR divides the state into four regional landscape ecosystems, or ecoregions, as a way of classifying ecological needs and land use patterns.
“Proper legislative oversight” is all well and good, and we’re all for the NRTF board being held accountable for the funding decisions it makes. We take no issue with having the NRTF board submit a yearly report to state lawmakers on unspent funds; that, in and of itself, is not the issue.
What ruffles our feathers is that some lawmakers see the need to, as some have said, “stack the deck” with appointees who would be named to the board from a list of candidates hand-picked by people holding highly partisan offices (the Senate Majority Leader and the state Speaker of the House). As such, the process for allocating money to specific projects and/or acquisitions could easily be painted as political in nature.
And while the argument could be made that the NRTF board is already politicized because the governor currently appoints four NRTF board members, with concurrence of the state Senate, and is also responsible for the appointment of the state DNR director and NRC members, this provision of Booher’s SB 1238 would simply add more partisan tinder to the fire.
By it’s very nature, the NRTF board should remain as non-partisan as possible. Adopting SB 1238 and signing it into law would, frankly, create more partisanship and political posturing in Lansing when less of it is what’s needed in the first place.
If nothing else, bring the legislation back to the table without the provisions increasing the size of the NRTF board. That, in and of itself, would be a step in the right direction.