MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources and sportsmen's groups are planning a new push to get the Legislature to raise hunting and fishing license fees, alarmed that a key fund is headed for insolvency sooner than expected.
The Game and Fish Fund, which supports programs important to hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans, is due to go into the red in mid-2013. That's about a year earlier than expected when DNR officials first proposed higher license fees a year ago.
The fees haven't changed since 2001.
"Let us pay more. We're volunteering," said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.
Ed Boggess, the DNR's fish and wildlife division director, said revenue will be down $7.6 million from what was forecast a year ago for three reasons. The state government shutdown cost the DNR about $2.2 million in lost fishing and hunting license sales, ongoing revenue from hunting and fishing license sales is projected at $1.1 million less than before, and the state's share of projected revenues from federal excise taxes on tackle and other items is down $4.3 million.
The DNR proposed a long list of fee increases last year, including a rise from $17 to $24 for a one-year resident individual adult fishing license and from $24 to $40 for a married couple. An individual deer license would have gone from $26 to $30. An annual angling license for a nonresident adult would have gone from $39.50 to $44 and a nonresident deer license would have gone from $140 to $160. The DNR's proposal this year is expected to be about the same.
Boggess said it's urgent that lawmakers act this year so that any fee increases will be in place for 2013 licenses. DNR officials hope to give lawmakers a list early in the session, which opens Jan. 24, of cuts that would have to be made if fees aren't raised.
"There will be very deep cuts to fisheries and wildlife programs and staffing and offices," Boggess said.
The Legislature didn't act on the proposal last year in a session marked by gridlock over taxes and spending between a GOP-controlled House and Senate and a Democratic governor. The House Republican Caucus, in particular, was strongly opposed to any tax increases, even when packaged as user fees paid by the people who directly benefit.
Supporters said they think this year will be different since the state isn't staring down a huge budget deficit.
"The support is there from the hunting and fishing community," said Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation. "Whether the support is there from the legislative community remains to be seen."
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, who chairs the Senate's environmental committee, said he'll support higher fees but expects it to be one of the toughest issues his committee tackles this session.
"I think it has a much better chance this year because they're user fees, not taxes," Ingebrigtsen said. "If you don't hunt and fish in the state of Minnesota you don't have to pay for it."
The chairman of the corresponding House panel, Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said he generally agrees that higher license fees are needed, but he expects Republicans to come up with a proposal that might not be as extensive as the DNR's.
Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, which strongly opposes most tax increases, said he wouldn't necessarily oppose higher game and fish license fees although he'd want to look at the costs of operating the programs they support. He said there's "always an area of gray" on whether something is a tax or a fee, and he expects the fees to be a hot topic this session.
A study commissioned by the DNR last year found that its annual individual resident and nonresident fishing licenses were low compared to fees charged throughout the United States." The state's other fishing license fees were about average.
Minnesota's deer license fee was low compared to other states, while other game licenses a bit higher and in line with nearby states.
A DNR presentation based on that study said Minnesota's fees would be in the middle of the pack even with the proposed increases.
Vern Wagner, vice president of Anglers for Habitat, said $25 for a fishing license would still be a bargain compared with other forms of entertainment such as taking your kids to a movie and buying them popcorn.
Wagner also pointed out that the DNR already has absorbed substantial cuts in recent years. Many positions have been eliminated, fewer studies are being done and there's less money for stocking lakes, he said. And all of that strikes at the heart of the state's identity, he said.
According to the DNR, around 2 million Minnesotans fish and around 700,000 hunt, generating $3.6 billion in annual economic activity and supporting 55,000 jobs.
"Fishing is synonymous with Minnesota. Or maybe it's the other way around," Wager said with a laugh. "Minnesota is synonymous with fishing."
Department of Natural Resources background on license fees, with links to detail proposed changes: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/heritage/index.html