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Boater-Voters Protect Funds

BoatUS Magazine - January 2007
When the Clean Water Act was signed into law more than 30 years ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) went to work writing regulations articulating the permit system for different industries discharging pollutants. After they wrote regulations for industrial plants discharging chemicals into local waterways and they dealt with discharges from sewage treatment plants, the EPA turned to ships and boats, deliberately excluding "discharges incidental to the normal operation of a vessel." This meant that boaters could go about their business, scrubbing their boats after fishing, using automatic bilge pumps to keep their boats afloat and cooling engines with sea water.

Three years ago Michigan boaters got mad as they saw $7.8 million of their hard-won waterway trust fund monies hijacked to shore up the state's budget, but there was little they could do to stop it. Late last year they got even.

On Election Day 2006, an amazing 83% of Michigan voters said "Yes" to Proposal 1, a ballot initiative that put a constitutional clamp on the state Waterway Trust Fund, plus eight other trust funds, prohibiting the diversion of any money from its intended use without first amending the state constitution. The Waterway Trust Fund includes boat registration fees and a portion of state gasoline taxes.

The overwhelming voter approval of Proposal 1 prevents raids on the nine conservation and recreation trust funds that are derived from hunting and fishing license sales, snowmobile and off-road vehicle use permits, boat launching fees, as well as the state excise tax on motorboat fuel.

Michigan is among 30 states that currently return a portion of gasoline taxes paid by boaters, as well as some boat registration fee monies, into dedicated funds that support boating programs.

Nonetheless, in 2003, after the Michigan Legislature approved a move by the then-governor, John Engler, to divert the Waterway Trust Fund money to help cover a budget shortfall, boating interests began to develop a constitutional remedy. Although none of the other funds had been tapped in the past, a coalition of outdoor recreation interests, including hunters, anglers and conservation groups, joined forces to prevent it from happening again, according to Van Snider, executive director of the Michigan Boating Industries Association.

The coalition convinced the legislature the following year to approve a constitutional measure and Gov. Jennifer Granholm subsequently signed it, but it took until the 2006 election cycle to get Proposal 1 on the ballot.

Once Proposal 1 was accepted for the ballot, the boating industry association and other boating groups, including BoatU.S., mounted a statewide grassroots voter education campaign last summer.

"It was important for voters to understand that Proposal 1 would not raise taxes or fees, or change the purposes of these trust funds," Snider said.

voter 11.07

Although there was almost no organized opposition to the initiative, seven state newspapers urged a "No" vote, including the influential Lansing State Journal and the Detroit News, which said passage of Proposal 1 would establish "a worrisome pattern" of what it termed "special interests want(ing) to protect their funding."

Nonetheless, many other newspapers endorsed the measure and Snider credited the clear language of the ballot question with making the choice of protecting outdoor recreationists' own money obvious. Even voters who may not have read about Proposal 1 understood the issue once they entered the voting booth, he said.

Michigan is the second largest boating state in the nation and given its large population of hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts as well, support for Proposal 1 was widespread, although the 83% vote seemed a pleasant surprise to everyone.

BoatU.S. publicized the measure to its Michigan members during the summer and sent out an e-mail grassroots action alert just prior to Election Day.

"Boaters in Michigan have worked hard for many years to create and protect programs that put their own money to work for boating," said BoatU.S. Vice President for Government Affairs, Margaret Podlich. "This vote demonstrates how strongly boaters feel about protecting their favorite pastime and it sets an example for other states to follow."

Podlich warned that such funds can become attractive targets for cash-strapped state governments. That happened in California last year when lawmakers diverted $27.3 million from the state Department of Boating and Waterways to bolster the Dept. of Parks and Recreation budget.

Other states may be eyeing boaters' money, too. According to Jeffery Johnson, president of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, a poll of his association's members last year put the trend toward diverting dedicated boating money at the top of their list of concerns.

"As state governments continue the pressure to move trust fund monies around to cover budget shortfalls, this has become an insidious threat to our boating programs," said Johnson, who is Alaska's boating law administrator.

To be added to the BoatU.S. e-mail alert list, send a message to By Ryck Lydecker

© BoatUS Magazine January 2007