School’s Out for Summer

A weekly update on environmental policy happenings from Ryan Werder, Political Director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (Twitter: @rjwerder)

I think I know how my high school principal felt, walking the halls after school was out and students had finished impatiently tapping their pencils until that final bell and TP’ing all the trees on the mad rush out to summer break. That was the Legislature last week.

As they rushed through a flurry of anti-conservation bills, I couldn’t wait for them to go on summer break so we could assess the damage and start cleaning up. Looking at the mess, we are already noting some particularly unruly legislators who should be expelled in the fall.

Public Land Under Attack in Northern Michigan

The Land Cap Bill, SB 248, passed the House on Thursday after legislators rejected a compromise amendment on Tuesday, a saga we’ve covered extensively. The compromise would have exempted the entire Lower Peninsula from the Land Cap, allowing the DNR to add much-needed public land in southern Michigan and important missing pieces of critical land in northern Michigan.

On Tuesday, though, the House voted to reject the compromise Schmidt Amendment — named for its sponsor, Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R – Traverse City) — and instead adopted a substitute bill to specifically cap public land in the Lower Peninsula. So much for the spirit of compromise. It’s not as if this was a partisan deal, either. A number of GOP officials were upset about the move, too, and voted against the break in trust.

Even with the bipartisan opposition, though, the bill still passed on Thursday by a margin of just four votes; not coincidently, there were exactly four northern Michigan legislators who voted to put their own districts under the cap. (There were also some northern Michigan legislators who should be commended for voting against the Land Cap Bill and with their constituents in mind).

To add insult to injury in blocking public recreation up north, two regional funding opportunities were stripped from the recommended Natural Resources Trust Fund appropriations bill. Without these two provisions, funding will not be available before 2014 for unanticipated, but important, acquisitions in northern Michigan. It’s like finding that perfect house and having the bank deny your mortgage because you didn’t let them know you wanted it two years prior (and didn’t even know it would be available).

Beach Grooming Bill Passes

Also on Thursday, the legislature voted to pass SB 1052, which deregulates beach grooming activities between the ordinary high water mark and the waters edge, an area the Michigan Supreme Court considers part of the public trust along Great Lakes shorelines.

The bill removes the requirement that property owners get a permit before mowing or removing vegatation within that zone. Proponents of the bill want to be able to remove invasive vegetation like phragmites without a permit, but this could actually spread phragmites further because improper removal or removal at the wrong time actually makes the problem worse.

Permitting requirements ensure that invasive species removal plans by property owners will not spread phragmites to neighboring beaches. An amendment to the bill requires the newly-created Invasive Species Council to make recommendations on phragmites removal, but without a permitting process their recommendations will be difficult to enforce.

Bottle Bill Exemption Passed with Amendment

The bill to exempt pouch drinks from the bottle deposit law passed the Senate this week, too, but not before an important amendment reduced the negative impacts of HB 5660.

After a Senate committee rejected an amendment by Sen. Rebekkah Warren (D – Ann Arbor) to specify that only frozen drinks would be exempted, the full Senate adopted the amendment before passage. Limiting the exemption to frozen drinks ensures that other beverages won’t be sold in non-recyclable pouches just to gain a market advantage by avoiding the deposit law. In other words, thankfully, you shouldn’t be seeing Miller-Lite-in-a-Pouch anytime soon.

While we would have liked to see Sen. Warren’s other amendments passed, like expanding the bottle deposit to water bottles and energy drinks, the bill that was passed is better than the bill that was originally introduced. Michigan LCV members helped open the door to this compromise by making hundreds of calls to their legislators on this bill, too. Thanks also to Rep. Jeff Irwin (D – Ann Arbor), for his leadership on this bill in the House. It’s safe to say without Rep. Irwin and Sen. Warren championing this issue, it would have slipped right under the radar, and in record time.

Sand Dunes Bill Returns to the Senate

It wasn’t all bad news this week, though. SB 1130, which would erode sand dune protections against over-development, was returned to the Senate last week without a House vote. Michigan LCV members made hundreds of calls to their legislators in opposition to the bill, and even the Governor had problems with it, according to committee testimony by the DEQ.

This means that, at least for now, one part of the Assault on Pure Michigan is delayed for the summer.

The legislators have gone home for the summer, some back to their districts for their summer jobs of trying to get re-elected. Mercifully, they’re no longer in session to vandalize the laws protecting Michigan’s forests, shorelines, riverbanks, and sand dunes. Whether they’ll get the opportunity to continue the same type of behavior next year is all up to you!

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