LANSING, Mich. — Michigan lawmakers are not authorized to pay for public recreation projects with money in a special state fund unless they have been recommended by that fund’s board, nor can they force the board to spend more on the projects, state Attorney General Bill Schuette said in an opinion released Monday.
The opinion , dated Nov. 3, came in response to questions over legislators’ bid to exert more control over how the state buys and improves land for public recreation and conservation. The Republican-led Senate earlier this year voted to issue more grants from the popular Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund than recommended, a break from what is typically a rubber-stamp process.
Faced with opposition from the GOP-controlled House and Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, senators later agreed to approve the board’s recommendations for this year while asking Schuette to weigh in on the constitutional conflict.
The fund consists of royalties paid by oil and gas development companies that buy and lease state-owned mineral rights. Used exclusively to purchase and improve land for public recreation and protection of natural features, it has awarded more than $1 billion for trails, parks, boat launches and other projects in every county over its 41-year history.
Schuette, a Republican who is running for governor, said the trust fund board has “exclusive authority” to recommend projects under the Michigan Constitution.
The fund has accumulated a maximum $500 million in principal, so royalties now go to the Michigan State Parks Endowment Fund. But interest and earnings on the $500 million is still used for land and recreation projects every year.
Some legislators have been frustrated that the Natural Resources Trust Fund board is not spending more of the money above the cap.
Schuette responded to a request for an opinion from Republican Sen. Darwin Booher of Evart and state Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh, who sits on the five-member board.
Schuette said the value of the fund can exceed $500 million if the excess is due to interest, earnings or other amounts authorized for expenditure. He cautioned, however, that the fund’s board cannot cause the interest and earnings to “indefinitely accumulate” for the purpose of increasing the fund’s principal balance beyond $500 million.
The Senate had wanted to spend $7.7 million more on another 43 recreational projects — beyond the $47.6 million for 27 acquisitions and 87 development projects proposed by the fund and ultimately enacted by lawmakers and Snyder. One bill would have ensured that a quarter of yearly spending went to develop recreation facilities, a revision to a provision that says up to a quarter must be used for that purpose.
The rest of the spending is on land acquisition.