Environment Picture

President's Column: Two huge thank-yous and a to-do list for 2015

In the months since the fall print edition of the Michigan Environmental Report, MEC won two important victories that underscore the power of the respect and relationships we’ve cultivated among state leaders.

The first was the passage of a transportation funding proposal that, if passed by voters, would provide the funds needed to begin to fix our crumbling roads and bridges, while also providing much-needed funding for public transportation. As MEC has stated and the governor has proclaimed, public transportation is a critical component of our transportation system.

Under the plan, Michiganders will vote on a special ballot proposal in May to remove the sales tax on fuel and raise the general sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent. It is expected to raise $1.34 billion, including $112 million for the Comprehensive Transportation Fund, which supports maintenance and upgrades to public transit and passenger rail.

While MEC preferred a legislative solution, we’re pleased that the funding plan would put the anticipated revenue through Michigan’s full, traditional transportation funding formula. Known as Act 51, the formula distributes funds throughout the state’s entire transportation system.

If approved, the plan would be Michigan’s first structural increase in state-level funding for public transportation since 1987.

People in urban and rural areas of Michigan depend on public transit in their daily lives, and more and more young professionals consider it a must when they choose where to live. This plan is good for drivers, transit riders and Michigan’s economy.

The new funding would make Michigan more effective in attracting new talent and providing all Michiganders access to opportunity. The state’s 78 public transit agencies provided more than 95 million transit trips in 2013—more than 260,000 rides to work, doctor visits or other destinations each day. State data show rail service has seen a 78 percent ridership bump between 2002 and 2013. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Millennials list good public transportation among their top three factors when choosing where to live. According to the American Public Transportation Association, every $1 invested in public transportation generates $4 in economic activity.

By using Act 51 fully, the plan would also benefit the Department of Natural Resources Recreational Improvement Fund, which supports Michigan’s extensive system of more than 12,000 miles of trails for motorized and non-motorized use.

Additionally, that fund helps to maintain and improve the state’s 80 harbors and marinas and 1,300 public boating access sites, supporting the shipping and recreational boating industries that are an essential piece of Michigan’s economy.

Big win for biodiversity

The second victory was Gov. Snyder’s veto of Senate Bill 78, a misguided piece of legislation that would have blocked state agencies from designating land to protect biological diversity.

Prior to leaving for the holidays, MEC sent the governor a three-page letter outlining our objections and urging his veto of this legislation. We received word back from his administration and from the governor himself that he had received our letter and would consider our request. We kept in regular contact with the administration as we awaited the decision on the fate of this bill.

It was gratifying to see the governor use some of MEC’s rationale for rejecting this legislation in his veto message. We gave him high praise for vetoing this legislation in a press release:

“Gov. Snyder’s decision today shows a respect for and understanding of science, and honors Michigan’s heritage as a conservation leader. Rather than letting anti-science fear steer our state policy, this veto ensures that our state’s trained biologists, ecologists and foresters can continue to take a holistic approach to the management of our public lands and the diversity of plants, animals and natural resources they provide.”

MEC fought to defeat this legislation since it was introduced two years ago. SB 78 would have undermined the scientific principles that have long been the foundation of land management in Michigan. Among other changes, it would have amended the definition of “conservation” in the state’s 1994 Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, removing key provisions regarding population distribution and the “continued existence” of native species and communities. It also would have removed the conservation of biodiversity from the forest management duties of the Department of Natural Resources and required the department to balance its ecosystem management activities with economic values.

The bill would have impaired the state’s authority to implement Endangered Species Act protections, made it far more difficult for the DNR to control the spread of invasive species, and jeopardized certification of our state forests as sustainably managed.

As we stated previously, this veto helps maintain Michigan’s image as a place where people respect and appreciate the natural environment. That will help attract and retain the bright young scientists and resource managers we need to steward our state’s rich, diverse and often imperiled natural communities and ecosystems.

Looking ahead

Exciting as these victories were, we didn’t let celebration distract us from the important work ahead. In December, MEC developed and published a list of policy priorities for the new legislative session. The list of policy priorities encompasses a broad range of issues, from protecting our water resources and iconic wild places to accelerating our state’s transition to a clean-energy economy, building a modern transportation system and ending lead poisoning in Michigan.

These priorities are about realizing our state’s promise as a great place to live. Michigan is at the center of the world’s greatest freshwater resource, we have unmatched manufacturing know-how, and we offer outdoor experiences you can’t find anywhere else. The policies we’re proposing will leverage these unique assets to create new opportunities and a higher quality of life for Michiganders. They’ll also help keep more of our college graduates here and signal to educated workers elsewhere that Michigan values healthy, thriving communities and a clean environment.

MEC arrived at the policy agenda in collaboration with our member groups throughout the state. A longer list of priorities emerged after five regional member meetings. At our annual meeting in October, MEC member groups identified the final priority list as the most important issues to address in the near term.

The full list of priorities is available here and includes specific desired outcomes within seven issue categories:
  • Protect Michigan’s high-quality water resources and restore impaired waters.
  • Accelerate Michigan’s transformation to a clean-energy future.
  • Preserve, celebrate and protect Michigan’s wild and scenic lands and parks.
  • Build the modern transportation system Michigan needs to compete in the new economy.
  • Ensure that homes and communities provide safe environments for all Michiganders to live healthy, active lifestyles.
  • Make Michigan a recycling leader with a statewide recycling rate of 50 percent by 2020.
  • Create a vibrant, resilient Detroit where residents enjoy safe, clean and healthy neighborhoods.
Our “to-do” list never gets any shorter, but making Michigan a truly great place to live, work and play is well worth the effort.
-Chris Kolb
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