Lawmakers dump Snyder landfill fees from budget
Lansing — The Republican-led Legislature is dumping Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal to increase landfill fees for environmental cleanups despite near depletion of a bond that paid for similar efforts since 1988.
But lawmakers are expected to debate the fees again later this year as the Snyder administration and environmental groups push legislation projected to generate $74 million annually to remediate toxic contamination sites and boost the state’s recycling rate.
“We want to be a leader, and so I think we need the money to be able to really make Michigan a true Pure Michigan,” said Mike Nofs, a Battle Creek Republican sponsoring the Snyder-backed bill to raise landfill fees.
Lawmakers reluctant to raise fees or taxes in an election year brushed aside Snyder’s executive budget recommendation. The plan anticipated new revenue from landfill tipping fees, which the administration says are the lowest in the nation, making Michigan a haven for trash from Canada and other jurisdictions.
Michigan has a 36-cents-per-ton tipping fee at landfills, where 25.5 percent of the 17 million tons of trash dumped each year comes from other states and Canada, according to the administration. Fees in neighboring states average $5.32 per ton, ranging from $13 in Wisconsin to 60 cents in Indiana.
Nof’s bill would raise Michigan’s landfill tipping fee to $4.44 per ton and allow the rate to rise or fall with inflation every five years.
“The advantage that you’re going to have with this over a bond is that you’re not going to pay for interest payments,” said James Hohman, fiscal director for the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “But overall, it’s just another tax-and-spend program.”
The proposal would generate $45 million a year to continue remediating and redeveloping about 3,000 contaminated sites and deal with emerging contaminants, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and chemical vapor intrusion sites.
Another $15 million in annual revenue would provide recycling grants to local governments or non-profits to boost the state’s 15 percent recycling rate, one of the lowest in the country.
The proposed fee increase would also generate $9 million annually for oversight of landfills or other waste management sites and $5 million for water quality monitoring grants at beaches, inland waters and algae blooms in Lake Eerie.
Republican lawmakers who control the House and Senate appear hesitant to consider any form of fee or tax increase before the November general election despite a strong push from the term-limited governor.
“Gov. Snyder knew from the beginning of the proposal that this would be a heavy lift but is committed to seeing it all the way through the process,” spokeswoman Anna Heaton told The Detroit News.
The state House last week approved a budget that did not include $79 million in environmental cleanup revenue proposed by Snyder but instead included $25 million in one-time general fund spending to remediate and redevelop contaminated sites.
A separate Senate budget awaiting a floor vote does not include any funding from Snyder’s proposed tipping fee increases, and Republican lawmakers voted down a Democratic amendment to add the money in committee.
“The bill hasn’t passed yet, so the money is not there,” said Nofs, who voted against the proposed amendment despite introducing the tipping fee legislation. “We’ll get the budget done, and then we’ll look at where we are.”
Senate Appropriations Chairman Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, said there is about a 40 percent chance lawmakers take up an environmental cleanup funding plan later in the year but does not expect it to be part of the traditional budget process.
“I’m open minded about it,” Hildenbrand said. “I think a lot of legislators are open to it, but I don’t know at what level, whether it’s the governor’s proposal, something similar, less or structured differently.”
The tipping fee debate could be pushed into the year-end “lame-duck session,” when lawmakers could be more willing to approve a fee increase after the November election. The Legislature typically completes the budget by June.
Asked about the potential for lame-duck action, House Speaker Tom Leonard made clear he does not support the fee proposal. The DeWitt Republican has rarely allowed votes on bills he does not back.
“I can tell you personally I do not have the appetite to do it from here through the end of the year,” Leonard said.
The proposed tipping fee increases would replace funding from the Clean Michigan Initiative, a $675 million that provided the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality with $570 million for cleanup activities. As of October, the state had less than $8 million of that money left, mostly restricted for use on nonpoint source pollution control grants.
“They’ve exhausted all their existing funds, and we keep finding more and more problems sites which are threatening public health across the state,” said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.
While the Snyder administration says there are roughly 3,000 known contamination sites that need cleanup, Clift said that number is likely “woefully underreported.”
Snyder’s cleanup funding proposal comes amid a growing administration push to address sites with PFAS, groundwater contaminants that were used over the past 50 years to make products such as firefighting foams, food packaging and cleaning products.
The state has so far identified 28 known PFAS sites in 15 Michigan communities, including the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda and Wolverine manufacturing dumping sites in the Rockford area.
The DEQ is also attempting to assess the risk of toxic fumes from groundwater plumes at vapor intrusion sites across the state. As The Detroit News reported in February, there are 4,200 possible vapor intrusion sites in Michigan that department Director Heidi Grether said could pose a “significant public health threat.”
“We’ve got a lot of unaddressed sites out there and a real need for funding,” Clift said.
But Hohman pointed to Mackinac Center research showing the state awarded some Clean Michigan funds for projects that had little to do with toxic contamination cleanup, including recreations grants for swimming pools, a Detroit River “promenade” and state park renovations.
“We already have other funding sources for cleanup and the environment and, frankly I’m not sure they’re going to use this money effectively,” Hohman said, noting a small gas tax designed to fund remediation of leaky underground storage tanks and unclaimed bottle deposits that are set aside for similar efforts.
The 1998 bond, backed by Republican former Gov. John Engler and approved by nearly 63 percent of statewide voters, is still costing the state. As of 2016, Michigan owed $336.5 million to bondholders for the Clean Michigan Initiative, according to a state Treasurer’s report.