Now that a proposal to amend the Maine Constitution to devote money to the state’s fish and wildlife agencies has been rejected by lawmakers — as it should have been — a serious look at the departments’ funding is needed. Such a review must not fall back to the usual “tax hikers and kayakers” remedies that have been recommended and rejected before.
Rather, there must be a serious look at where the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Department of Marine Resources spend their money first. Is everything the departments are doing necessary? Given the chronic shortage of money, might there be some duties that can be jettisoned or better accomplished by another agency?
This should lead to a fact-based discussion of how much money the departments truly need in order to function. Once that has been settled, then there should be an examination of possible funding sources.
The proposed constitutional amendment began with the premise that DIF&W and DMR need more money. This may be true. But, given the skepticism voiced by members of the Legislature and the public — read the comments posted on the Bangor Daily News web site or asmainegoes.com — such a message has not been persuasive to many.
LD 563 sought to amend the Constitution to devote 1.2 percent of the state’s sales and use tax revenue to DMR and DIF&W. This would have meant that more than $10 million would have come off the top of the state budget each year to go to these two agencies.
They would, in essence, become the state’s top funding priorities, more important than schools, hospitals, roads, economic development and law enforcement.
Lawmakers were right to reject this plan, although it was by a tiny margin. The bill, which needed support from two-thirds of lawmakers, passed the House by one vote, but failed in the Senate by two.
In 2003, lawmakers passed legislation to have 18 percent of DIF&W’s budget come from the state’s General Fund. Immediately, money was tight and the state has yet to fulfill this commitment. Roughly 10 percent of the DIF&W budget has come from the General Fund in recent years.
The state Constitution already has a provision requiring that money collected by the department, mainly from hunting and fishing license fees, stays within the department. This was approved by voters in 1992.
Ironically, lawmakers thought they were helping the department when they passed this amendment. Instead, it has left some of their successors believing that DIF&W is adequately funded.
If more money is needed, there will be suggestions to raise fees, especially those charged to out-of-state hunters. Before this notion is dismissed because it will drive hunters away from Maine, lawmakers should seek a definitive analysis.
There is evidence that Maine’s fees are low for out-of-staters. An analysis of license fees in 11 western states done by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife found that out-of-state licenses cost an average of 7.4 times more than those for residents there. In Maine, out-of-state licenses typically cost three times more than resident licenses.
Adequately funding Maine’s conservation agencies has long been a problem. Resolving it will take more than consideration of old solutions.