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Opinion | Michigan should use surplus to protect our state parks

A recent story in Bridge Michigan makes it abundantly clear that outdoor recreation is big business in Michigan. But to keep it that way, the state needs to fully commit to this burgeoning industry by making a one-time deposit to the State Park Endowment Fund to ensure our outdoor spaces are maintained for generations to come.

Rich Bowman
Rich Bowman is policy director for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan.

It’s no secret that more and more people have flocked to the outdoors over the last two years to hike through one of Michigan’s national, state or local parks, spend a relaxing day at the beach or enjoy the solace of backcountry camping. In fact, our state is a beacon of outdoor adventure, not just for Michiganders but for people across the Midwest.

And the Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have a chance to make sure it stays that way.

When lawmakers return to Lansing in December, they have a unique opportunity to make a one-time investment in our parks and outdoor spaces through the State Park Endowment Fund. This would pay dividends in upkeep and maintenance and benefit Michiganders for decades.

Right now, the state has an estimated $6 billion budget surplus. A one-time deposit of $500 million into the State Park Endowment Fund would equate to a nearly $80 million tax cut every year — forever — because taxes would no longer be needed to fund the operations of our state parks.  Plus, the Fund is adjusted every year based on increases in the Consumer Price Index, so there is no risk of it losing its purchasing power during times of inflation, like we are experiencing today.

Fully funding the State Park Endowment Fund would also allow an important funding stream to flow back to the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund — the revenue from royalties from the sale and lease of oil, gas and state-owned mineral rights. These additional funds would ensure we can protect public lands and maintain our best-in-class outdoor recreation facilities for decades to come.

Upholding traditions of outdoor recreation — and their economic benefits — is top of mind for many states adapting to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the summer, the National Conference of State Legislatures – a bi-partisan gathering of state lawmakers from all 50 states – held a panel discussion on the outdoor industry and highlighted 30 percent growth in the industry over the last two years. The panel also noted the importance of state investment in outdoor recreation.

The Utah Legislature, for instance, is considering legislation to divert money from sales taxes to fund improvements at parks, which is expected to generate $38 million a year.

Michigan can do even better.

This spring, the Legislature took a good first step by making a $250 million investment in state park infrastructure. While this money was desperately needed, it won’t last forever.

By using money from our current unexpected surplus to fully fund the State Park Endowment Fund, Michigan can take the burden of maintaining and improving our parks off the backs of hardworking Michiganders, now and into the future.

This one-time payment would also fulfill the goal of 2020’s Proposal 1 long before many thought possible. Proposal 1, which removed the funding cap on the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, was overwhelmingly approved by voters because they saw the benefit of supporting the places that make Michigan so special — from our Great Lakes beaches and public lands to our trails, paths, parks and playgrounds.

A one-time allocation to the State Park Endowment Fund should be a tax break we can all get behind. It ensures our children and grandchildren won’t have to pay for the upkeep of our outdoor spaces and guarantees Michigan’s natural beauty can be enjoyed by future generations.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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