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Michigan senators eye rainy day fund for dredging

David Eggert, Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Republican senators on Tuesday called for spending $30 million from the state's rainy day account this year to dredge Great Lakes harbors, saying emergency action is needed to keep open ports grappling with record-low water levels.

The short-term fix would buy time while lawmakers search for permanent revenue to help water-starved harbors as the federal government cuts back on dredging and the lakes continue declining.

Gov. Rick Snyder asked legislators last week for a special $21.5 million mid-year appropriation for dredging — the removal of sediments so water is deep enough for boats and barges. Half of that money would be pulled from a fund that comes primarily from motor fuel taxes and pays for improvements to marine infrastructure such as breakwalls and boat ramps.

Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, said tapping the $505 million Budget Stabilization Fund would allow those infrastructure projects to proceed without a minimum one-year delay.

"It fits the use for which that fund was intended. It's an emergency situation," he said during a news conference at the Capitol. "This is one-time money that we need to use to get our harbors in workable condition."

The Republican governor appears hesitant to draw money from the savings account he has worked to build up from $2 million when he took office. He proposed setting aside another $75 million in the next budget starting in October and hopes it eventually has more than $1 billion.

"The governor and budget director remain focused on showing fiscal responsibility. A health rainy day fund is a major part of showing that fiscal responsibility," said spokesman Kurt Weiss.

He said credit agencies look at the reserve account when setting the state's borrowing costs, but he stopped short of taking a hard stance against the Senate GOP's dredging proposal.

Though senators said they support Snyder's sense of urgency to help, they said more must be done and that is why they unveiled a proposal to supplement his plan.

Options include reviving a low-interest loan program for private marinas, automatically dedicating some of the transportation budget to marine freight, and diverting money to dredging from the Waterways Account and National Resources Trust Fund — two funds with money that can only be spent on certain things.

Sen. Geoff Hansen, R-Hart, who is taking a lead on the issue, said dollars in those accounts can arguably be spent on dredging in recreational ports. The goal is to devise long-term strategies and funding solutions to ensure harbors, ports and waterways are accessible and sustainable for both freight and recreational traffic, he said.

"It is an issue that affects every single Michigan resident, not just the approximately 90 harbor communities," Hansen said. "Michigan residents and our business community depend on the long-term assurance that our waters will remain open to the public."

The Snyder administration already has announced plans to expedite environmental permits for dredging projects, push for more federal and state funding, and devise a long-term strategy to pay for keeping harbors deep enough for vessels to move between docks and the lakes.

A federal tax on freight shipped at U.S. ports raises about $1.5 billion a year for dredging and harbor maintenance. But about half of the money is diverted for other uses. Members of Congress from coastal states are pushing to change that policy.


Email David Eggert at deggert(at)ap.org and follow him at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00