Lansing – Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a stiff rebuke to the state Senate in an opinion released Monday after the chamber sidestepped a state trust fund board and unilaterally decided to finance conservation and recreation projects the board had not recommended.
Schuette argued in his legal opinion that the Legislature does not have the authority to approve money for public recreation and conservation projects that weren’t previously recommended by a trust fund board charged in part with overseeing that funding by the Michigan Constitution.
The state’s Constitution “vests exclusive authority in the Trust Fund Board to recommend projects to be funded” that the Legislature can later approve or reject, he said.
“While the Legislature may approve or disapprove a recommended appropriation, the Legislature may not appropriate funds from the Trust Fund for a project that was not recommended by the Trust Fund Board,” the Republican attorney general continued.
Schuette’s legal opinion holds the force of law unless it’s appealed in court.
The Republican-controlled Senate sparked the legal response from GOP Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration after the Department of Natural Resources asked Schuette to decide whether the Senate violated the state Constitution in May by approving an extra $7.7 million from a state trust fund for conservation projects. The money was for project applications the Natural Resources Trust Fund board did not advocate.
The GOP-controlled House did not end up approving the extra money. But the Senate’s action created a question of government authority about whether the Legislature could fund such projects without first getting the green light from the Natural Resources Trust Fund board.
Schuette wrote that the constitutional rules on how that money collected in a trust fund from state oil and gas mineral rights can be spent were previously advocated by a past Legislature and put in the Constitution.
More than $1 billion from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund has been approved since it was formed in 1976 to pay for buying and developing land for trails, parks and other recreation projects like the Outdoor Adventure Center in Detroit.
In early September, Snyder approved an appropriations bill that funds $47.6 million for 27 land acquisition and 87 development projects. The Senate wanted to insert another $7.7 million for 43 additional projects that the House later rejected.
Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh -- who sits on the trust fund board -- said he was satisfied with Schuette’s opinion.
“I appreciate the opinion by the attorney general because it does define roles and responsibility and protects the trust fund for current and future generations,” Creagh said.
The fund has a principal cap of $500 million, but can exceed that limit through interest, earnings “or other amounts authorized for expenditure,” Schuette also wrote in the opinion.