We were surprised the Bangor Daily News on June 22 editorialized against LD 563, Resolution Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution to Use a Portion of the Sales and Use Tax for the Protection of Maine’s Fish and Wildlife. This proposal to amend our constitution is of vital importance to all those who care about Maine and deserves to be considered by Maine voters.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Department Marine Resources are responsible for virtually all of the natural resources that Maine people care about, especially those in rural Maine. It is no secret that rural Maine struggles with high poverty rates and little economic opportunity. The one bright ray of hope for rural Maine is the beautiful, natural environment that surrounds us.
In recognition of the value of DIF&W, legislative stewards of the past proposed a constitutional amendment that placed special protections on the revenue raised by license fees, directing that they be spent on department programs that benefit sportsmen and others who enjoy the outdoors. The people of Maine ratified this amendment at the polls in 1992.
Unfortunately, these visionary thinkers could not foresee how the legislative budget process would evolve to undermine their well-intentioned work. Each year, general fund monies that are not protected by the constitutional amendment are slashed by appropriators.
Sportsmen and women then face two choices: cut programs, or increase fees to maintain vital programs that protect endangered species, perform search and rescue, etc. Vital programs and services like these are targeted knowing that they will never be cut or eliminated. Past administrations have figured this it out, and with each budget cycle, more and more general fund responsibilities are shifted to license fees paid by sportsmen.
This clever sidestep around the intent of the constitutional amendment has serious implications for Maine’s natural resources. DIF&W spends 75,000 hours on programs serving the general public for which they receive virtually no general fund support.
During the King administration, the Legislature enacted a law directing future legislatures and the governor to cover the 18.5 percent general fund spending within the DIF&W budget unrelated to sportsmen. The ink on this new law wasn’t even dry before the Legislature ignored it.
Sportsmen are conservationists, but expecting their license fees to fund general fund programs is unsustainable, and over time will lead to unaffordable license fees. Activities such as hunting and fishing that are important elements of Maine’s heritage and culture will become financially out of reach for many people. Decades of neglect have had serious consequences for Maine’s outdoors. It is no coincidence that Maine’s deer herd has collapsed.
The absence of stable funding has other negative implications for Mainers. Legislators continue to propose piecemeal ways to raise money from outdoor activities further eroding our rights. Numerous money-raising schemes pop up, including outdoor access cards, new registrations, expanded lotteries, canoe and kayak registration fees, saltwater fishing licenses and the list goes on. All of these proposals are widely opposed by the public, but many are passed anyway, further restricting our access to freely use Maine resources.
Our proposal to protect these important natural resources through a constitutional amendment will help rectify this problem. If ratified by the voters, it will end this destructive yearly process and commit a small portion of the sales and use tax (about $10 million a year) to pay for DIF&W programs and DMR’s Sea Run Fisheries program.
While some may argue that this money should remain in the general fund, we argue that it is an investment. Outdoor activities such as wildlife watching, hunting and fishing, ATV and snowmobiling generate $2.4 billion in annual economic activity. Other states such as Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota have recognized this valuable element of their economies and adopted similar constitutionally directed protections.
Sustainable wildlife management requires careful planning and dedicated resources to sustain it. This nation once rallied our resources to save the Bald Eagle from extinction. Maine’s clean water, undeveloped wild areas, deer, moose, birds and scenic beauty are important parts of our history. If we fail to invest in these important natural resources, our unique Maine lifestyle may end up on the endangered species list.
Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, is a member of the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee. Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, represents Maine’s northernmost senate district. Rep. Madonna Soctomah of Perry represents Maine’s Passamaquoddy Tribe.