AUGUSTA, Maine — Two weeks of intense criticism from both ends of the political spectrum appear to have played a role in killing off a proposal that would have dedicated a portion of the state’s sales tax revenues to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Department of Marine Resources.
After receiving the necessary two-thirds support from the Legislature earlier this month, the bill failed to reach that threshold during Tuesday’s final enactment vote in the Senate.
A majority of the Senate, 22-12, voted to send the proposal to referendum in November, a prerequisite to amend the state Constitution. However, the margin was two votes shy of the necessary two-thirds support.
Five senators who previously supported the bill — three Republicans and two Democrats — voted against the measure on Tuesday.
Before the vote, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, said that the tea party was working hard to defeat the bill.
“I have been kind of shocked to see that members of the tea party have chosen to make this their fall-on-the-sword or die-on-the-hill issue,” Trahan said. “It strikes me as odd. The tactics in particular are very, very … aggressive. Very nasty emails, phone calls. The tone has been upsetting to me.”
Trahan said his Republican colleagues were being “bullied” to withdraw their support for the bill.
Members of the tea party have blasted the proposal because they believe it jiggers the state Constitution to meet the financial needs of special interests. Tea party and conservative posters on the conservative website As Maine Goes over the last several days have characterized the bill as an attempt by the fish and game lobby to exempt itself from the budget process.
The bill also came under fire from progressives who worried that dedicating resources to DMR and DIF&W would come at the expense of social services and education funding.
Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, said the bill circumvented the budget process which, he said, was an outline of the state’s funding priorities.
“This bill forces us to do what we just chose not to do in this year’s budget,” Bartlett said.
The bill would have amended the state Constitution to direct 1.2 percent of Maine’s sales tax revenues, or about $11 million a year, to the two agencies. Supporters said the bill would address periodic underfunding at the two agencies and allow the departments to better manage and protect the state’s wildlife and marine resources without increasing fees for hunting and fishing licenses.
Trahan said the Legislature had failed to fund needed programs such as search and rescue, endangered species programs and managing the deer herd.
Right now 80 percent of Maine’s general fund revenue goes to education and health and human services programs.
Funding for DIF&W and DMR combined make up less than 2 percent of the budget. It was about 4 percent in 1981.
“It’s come to a critical point,” Trahan said. “We have come to a point where we have to look at either cutting those programs or again raising fees. We’ve already saturated the ability to raise fees.”
During the floor debate Trahan described several instances where the Legislature attempted to fund the departments through fees on kayak rentals and saltwater fishing licenses.
Trahan also argued that funding the departments was a goal that dovetailed with the state’s desire for economic development.
“This department, IF&W in particular, has been so decimated by cuts that I don’t think they can … strike that balance [between resource protection and economic development],” he said.
The amendment would have delivered approximately $11 million to the agencies, with about 90 percent going to DIF&W and 10 percent to DMR.
Budget hawks worried that dedicating a specific percentage to the departments would increase the departments’ allocation as sales tax revenues increase. Additionally, it’s not clear how exactly the money would have been divided within the departments.
Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said he agreed that the departments needed to be funded. However, he said he was philosophically opposed to amending the Constitution to allocate the resources.
Trahan said he was disappointed with the vote,but that he was considering starting a citizens’ initiative to bring the issue to the voters. The bill had broad support from the environmental and sportsmen lobby and Trahan was confident that the coalition could mobilize support.
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