Without modest license increases, a key DNR fund will run dry.
Former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant gave a pep talk to a state Senate committee this month, but the Hall of Famer wasn't at the Capitol to push for the team's new home.
"I'm here to promote something more important than the stadium," Grant said, referring to proposed legislation that would raise hunting and fishing license fees for the first time since 2001.
Grant, 85, is an avid outdoorsman whose advocacy for Minnesota's invaluable natural resources is heartfelt. Department of Natural Resources officials point out that Grant's view of the legislation is shared by a healthy number of hunters and anglers who would welcome a modest fee increase to fund fish and wildlife conservation.
Legislators who failed to act on Gov. Mark Dayton's request for higher fees last year should share the DNR's sense of urgency. Without more revenue, the state's Game and Fish Fund is projected to be insolvent by July 2013, which would likely lead to a host of cuts to important services.
The DNR fund supports essential conservation programs such as hatchery operations; shoreland and prairie habitat restoration; invasive-species education and enforcement programs, and fish and wildlife population studies.
The Game and Fish Fund is supported by license fees and apportioned reimbursement of federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment. Unique worldwide, the U.S. conservation model developed 75 years ago relies on revenues from hunters and anglers to support essential government programs.
In our increasingly wired world, however, entertainment options are more plentiful than ducks and walleye, and participation rates in nature-based recreation started to decline nationwide in the 1990s. Minnesota has felt the effects of that trend, both in falling license-fee revenues and lower federal reimbursement rates. The problem was only made worse by the recession and the 2011 state government shutdown.
Even with lower participation numbers, hunting and fishing are economic engines in Minnesota. About 1.5 million licensed anglers and 600,000 hunters help support 56,000 related jobs and $3.6 billion in annual expenditures, according to the DNR. Higher user fees are a wise investment in programs that are critical to the state's natural resources economy.
Skeptics will argue that the DNR should cut spending before raising fees. In fact, the DNR has been in a cost-cutting mode for the past four years, leaving positions open, using new technologies to reduce staff work and reducing energy costs. And, by law, the state is constitutionally prohibited from tapping Legacy Amendment or Minnesota State Lottery funds to substitute for traditional sources of revenue.
Hunting and angling license fees constitute the most direct and transparent user-fee arrangement in state government. Those benefiting from the services pay for them, testifying to their value in a way admirers of "market forces" should applaud. Rather than artificially preventing this market from working to preserve and enhance those services, would-be government reformers should be thinking about how to put the same principles to work elsewhere.
The fee increases would be small -- to $22, up from the current $17, for a resident fishing license; to $22, from $19, for a small-game license, and to $30, from $26, for deer. Nonresidents would also see increases. There would be more-flexible daily packages available, and the DNR and legislators have tailored the pricing to encourage youth hunting and fishing.
Minnesota ranks as a top destination for the nation's fishermen, trailing only four coastal states, but only 12 states charge less for a resident license. Even with the proposed increases, both hunting and fishing fees would remain competitive with other Midwestern states.
Minnesotans have repeatedly renewed their commitment to the state's valuable natural resources over the years. With approval of the proposed increases in license fees, their elected representatives in St. Paul can help ensure that the state's hunting and fishing habitats will not be ignored this time.
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