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Battle for revenue

3/31/2009

Facing rising costs and flat revenues, officials with state game and fish agencies in states from Maine to Oregon are considering raising the cost of hunting and fishing licenses to help mend broken budgets.

The result could mean yet another expense for sportsmen looking to spend a day on the water or a weekend in camp. Game and fish officials in several states said they were afraid that increasing the cost of a local license will make the outdoors a less-appealing option for families in need of cheap entertainment.

Even if local regulators want to raise the price of local licenses, they may not get their legislature to agree. Afterall: It's bad politics to foist a fee increase on constituents in the middle of a bad economy, when many are less able to pay.

Just ask Fred Craig.

The president of the Oregon Hunters Association says his state's department of natural resources is in such dire financial need that even his organization supports an increase in the price its members would pay for a license. There's just one problem: Oregon lawmakers aren't sure they want to pay the political price of raising costs on hunters in the middle of a recession.

"We fully understand that without a fee increase, we're going to lose some law enforcement officers. They're going to have some layoffs," Craig said. "There's also a pretty good current there with legislators that they really don't feel it's appropriate to raise the fees in today's economy."

Every recession leaves states with falling revenues and a pressing need to raise cash any way they can. And when it comes to statehouse politics, hunting and fishing licenses may seem like an easy and politically painless way to help erase a budget deficit, at least when compared to raising taxes, said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers in Washington D.C.

"Generally, you see it every time there's a downturn," Pattison said. "They look toward raising revenue and the last resort is the sales and income taxes."

Game and fish agencies in some states have found ways to cut budgets and not raise the cost of local licenses. Others are seeking a more modest rate increase. Some have no other choice.

Budget deficits hit $11.5 billion in Illinois earlier this month, and government bean counters have little choice but to raise the cost on a range of state services. Even the price of tickets to the Illinois State Fair is likely to go up, and outdoorsmen in the Land of Lincoln concede that the price of hunting and fishing licenses is bound to rise as well.

"You always have some that will complain on any tax increase, and that's understandable to because, that's all we've got any more is taxes, taxes, taxes," said Bob Becker, president of the Illinois Federation of Outdoor Resources. "But realistically, it's something our organization and most of our members would support."

"As long as the money's being recycled back into the resource, I don't think it a small increase is going to be a death knell," said Andy Kurkulis, owner of Chicago Flyfishing Outfitters. But he added that the state's raising taxes and fees makes him feel like he's being "nickled and dimed by the state for everything."

Other states that are now considering an increase in the cost of hunting and fishing licenses include New York, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maine and Texas. Several other states, such as Iowa, Tennessee and Kansas, said they were forced to abandon or delay an increase in fees because the affect such an increase would have on local sportsmen.

In Texas, the state's Parks and Wildlife Commission initially considered raising the cost of licenses by around 15 percent, said Gene McCarty, an agency spokesman. That would've taken the price of hunting licenses for resident Texans from $23 to $27, and of the freshwater fish package from $28 to about $32. But the agency's leadership is now seeking a smaller increase of about $2 because of concerns with the effect a higher price would have on local sportsmen.

"We've really ramped our proposal down just to try to reflect our concerns for the economy," McCarty said. "We believe we're one of the most cost-effective outdoor recreational activities out there and we certainly want to keep it that way."

In Wisconsin, where licensing fees are a major revenue source for state-managed fisheries, game and fish officials chose to meet a $2.2 million agency deficit by cutting costs rather than increasing the cost of a game license, said Adam Collins, a spokesman for the agency.

"We looked at a lot of different things in the budget," Collins said. "But one of the things that we really wanted to do from the outset is hold the line of hunting and fishing families."

No matter how ugly the budget and no matter how justified an increased fee may seem, state game and fish regulators say they understand that some outdoorsmen are certain to oppose the increased cost. Back in Oregon, Fred Craig said a good number of the members in his hunting association don't agree that an increase is needed, even as layoffs loom.

"The hunters that we represent, a lot of them are opposed to it," Craig said. "Our fish and wildlife programs are going to suffer if we do not [raise license fees] and others just plain don't want to pay it no matter what."