Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fishing for fiscal relief: the appropriate cost of a MN angling license

A battle is brewing over the price of a fishing license in Minnesota. And it is turning out to be more complicated than it might initially appear. Historically in Minnesota, fishing license fees have increased approximately once every six years. Minnesota's current license fee of $17 was last increased in 2001. If adjusted for inflation, that rate would be $22.50 today. In a state that has more fishermen (and women) than anywhere else in the country, Minnesota's license fee is 36th-lowest in the nation. [1]

Is the DNR in trouble?

These are exactly the types of arguments presented by the State Department of Natural Resources (DNR). According to the DNR, license revenue is the primary way Minnesota pays for fish and wildlife management. Even though license fees have stagnated, costs continue to rise which is projected to result in a negative balance of the all-important Game and Fish Fund by 2014 [2]. “If we don’t generate some additional license revenue, we’re going to have to make significant cuts to our programs and services, and that will eventually impact the quality of our hunting and fishing experiences,” said Jason Moeckel, DNR fisheries operations manager. [3]

Are fee increases politically feasible?

According to Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, "I don't think it's going to happen this year. We certainly can't support it when they sent us here not to raise taxes or fees ... we just can't do that." The DNR's proposal would raise the individual license fee from $17 to $24.

A similar bill supporting license fee increases was proposed during the 2010 legislative session. Supporters of that bill included many sportsmen and advocacy groups including: Representatives of Anglers for Habitat, the Minnesota Bass Federation, the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association, Muskies Inc., and Trout Unlimited [4]. Even with broad based support, and a DFL controlled legislature, the bill was defeated.

At a Citizen's Roundtable earlier this year (video clip above), newly appointed DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr discussed the complexities of a license fee increase. It is prudent to raise fees at a time when new recruitment into the sport is waning? Is a sliding fee structure more equitable than an "across the board" increase? These types of questions start to address the complexities that differentiate "user fees" from "taxes". User fees are distinct from taxes in that they only burden the users of a resource, and not those who receive no personal benefit. User fees also expose consumers to the true cost of their personal consumption, which may in turn influence behavior (one study found that doubling the fishing license fee in Maryland resulted in a 18% decrease in the number of licenses purchased). [5]

What is the answer?

On the surface, increasing the fishing license fee a few dollars a year seems like a good idea. It would provide some relief for the Game and Fish Fund, it is broadly supported by those who use the resources, and the current fee structure is out-of-date. On the other hand, opponents of the increase might remind us that user fees tend to be regressive in nature, or that they place equal burden on all users, regardless of frequency of use. And then there are the Republican lawmakers who feel committed to fulfilling their "no new tax (or fee)" campaign promises. Whatever the decision this year, Minnesotans consistently agree that natural resources are important and should be properly cared for. Especially to the tune of a few bucks a year.


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