Going for a Paddle? You Might Face a Fee

Concord — November 14, 2006 — In a bid to ward off a $5 million shortfall for the upcoming two-year budget, the Fish and Game Department wants to impose more user fees and take a portion of the state’s rooms and meals tax.

One of the proposed fees – a $10 annual conservation decal for all nonmotorized boats – would net about $1.5 million a year, Fish and Game officials said. Charging saltwater anglers an annual fee and taking a cut of the rooms and meals tax would raise an additional $5.6 million. After listening to hunters, anglers and other wildlife proponents yesterday, department officials will now turn to legislators. Fish and Game employees hope lawmakers will introduce the proposals in the coming legislative session.

“We’re essentially at a turning point where we can’t continue to cut and expect to have a viable agency,” said Lee Perry, the department’s executive director.

As a stopgap measure, Perry has asked Gov. John Lynch to set aside $1.6 million annually for two years. Lynch will unveil his proposed budget in February; lawmakers will vote on the budget this summer. The money, Perry said, “will allow us to keep people employed.”

The department was created in 1935 to maintain stocks for hunters and fishermen. But the department’s scope has expanded over the years to encompass conservation of wetlands and open space, search and rescue, public education and the policing of off-highway recreational vehicles. Although the department now benefits all residents, hunters and anglers continue to shoulder much of the cost, department officials said. Unlike most state departments, Fish and Game is self-supporting, meaning it must pay for its operations through fees it collects itself.

“I don’t think there’s any way to expect hunters and anglers to continue to foot the bill,” Perry said.

In past years, the department masked its money woes by raising the fees of hunting and fishing permits. Resident fishing licenses, for example, increased from $22.50 to $35 in the past five years. But the fees – the highest in New England – acted as a deterrent for some individuals. And the ranks of hunters and anglers are shrinking nationwide. In New Hampshire, the number of hunting licenses has declined by 25 percent since 1995. Fishing licenses have dropped by 10 percent.

The combination of a dwindling funding base and increased responsibilities has left the department in dire financial straits. The problem has been compounded by the rising cost of health insurance premiums and medical benefits for retirees: Benefits have surged 159 percent since 1995. If Fish and Game officials fail to raise money for the upcoming two-year budget, which begins in July, 28 full-time employees and 36 part-time employees could find themselves without work, Perry said.

With the proposed fees, Fish and Game officials hope to tap more beneficiaries of the state’s wildlife and natural resources, widening the net beyond hunters and anglers to include owners of kayaks, canoes and rowboats. The annual decal for non-motorized boats would cost $10.

“Because Fish and Game is responsible for all wildlife resources in the state, not just catering to hunters and fishermen, everyone should pay a fair share,” said Rep. Bob L’Heureux, a Merrimack Republican and chairman of the House Fish and Game Committee.

And the tax revenue would allow the department to reap some of the economic benefits of wildlife tourism. Hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers generate an estimated $579 million annually in New Hampshire, according to the federal government. Patrons of restaurants and hotels pay an 8 percent tax, 60 percent of which goes to the state’s general fund budget. The department wants 4 percent of the general fund’s portion of that tax, the equivalent of about $4.6 million.

Other measures – including an auction of moose hunting permits and a new structure for search-and-rescue missions – could also increase revenue. Currently, 85 percent of search-and-rescue missions involve individuals who aren’t hunters or anglers, and thus don’t contribute to the department, said Sandra Falicon, Fish and Game’s legislative and rules coordinator. The Fish and Game Commission has endorsed the proposed changes.

Last year’s Fish and Game budget totaled more than $24 million, more than half of which could only be used for certain programs such off-highway recreational vehicle enforcement. Although the department spends an average of $18 per resident on wildlife conservation and recreation, it receives only $50,000, or 3.8 cents per resident, from the general fund, department officials said.

There were some concerns yesterday. Joe Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire Wildlife Federation, worried that the proposed fee for owners of non-motorized boats would affect hunters and anglers, who are already supporting the department.

“We don’t want to get double-dipped as license holders,” Norton said.

And department officials and other wildlife representatives voiced concern with a proposal by Rep. Marshall Lee Quandt, a Republican from Exeter, to study whether Fish and Game should be absorbed by other state agencies. The department is also facing an audit.

But Perry remains optimistic. “We’re entering a new era in conservation,” he said. If lawmakers allow the department to transform the way it raises money, “it will be a watershed, landmark event in the state.”

Going for a Paddle? You Might Face a Fee