Compromise possible on DNR fee increases
Written by Associated Press   
Wednesday, 14 February 2007 18:01

The state Department of Natural Resources is willing to compromise on its proposal to boost hunting and fishing license fees, perhaps phasing them in over several years, DNR Director Rebecca Humphries said Wednesday.

But without a significant infusion of new revenue, the agency soon will have to consider drastic cutbacks in personnel and programs, Humphries said in an Associated Press interview.

"We need it yesterday," she said.

"We've been reducing staff. We're about two-thirds the size we were 15 years ago. And we'll have to cut entire programs down the road if we continue along this path, so we're concerned."

An advisory panel appointed by the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, the DNR's policy-making arm, last year proposed a package of license fee increases to solve a chronic funding shortfall in the department.

Among them: doubling the cost of a firearm or archery deer license from $15 to $30 for in-state residents. Hunters from outside Michigan would pay $165, up from $138. A license for both types of hunting would rise from $30 to $75 for Michigan residents. The all-species fishing license would jump from $28 to $40.

The cost of a senior citizen hunting licenses would quadruple _ from $6 to $24.

Lawmakers showed little enthusiasm for the package after the advisory panel released it last November. No one has stepped forward to sponsor it since the Legislature reconvened in January, but Humphries was upbeat.

"We've been working the outdoor shows, been over doing a lot more meet-and-greets with the Legislature, and we're getting fairly good support," she said. "I think most of the folks in our hunting and angling community are well aware of the fact that we need to have increases ... (but) they'd really like to see something that's incremental in nature."

In talks with legislators, DNR officials have proposed raising the fees over several years and eventually linking increases to the inflation rate, Humphries said. The senior discount also would be "whittled down" gradually.

She acknowledged any increase in license fees for seniors would be unpopular and said that proposal has drawn more criticism than anything else. But as the hunting population ages, an increasingly high percentage will be eligible for a discount that presently amounts to 60 percent off the regular rate, she said.

"We're not going to be able to afford that in years to come," Humphries said. Even with the proposed 400 percent increase, seniors would still get a 20 percent discount, she said.

DNR officials say their money woes go beyond the budget crunch caused by the foundering economy. Appropriations from the state's general operating fund have fallen drastically and now amount to just 9 percent of the DNR budget, down from 23 percent a decade ago.

Rep. Joel Sheltrown, chairman of the House Tourism, Outdoor Recreation and Natural Resources Committee, said phasing in the fee increases was "the only way any package will get through."

"Nobody is going to vote for 100 percent increases in fees all at one time," said Sheltrown, D-West Branch.

Crucial to getting hunter and angler support will be convincing them that the DNR will improve resource management by dealing with problems such as cormorant overpopulation and a perceived shortage of deer in northern Michigan, he said.

Humphries said making any improvements will be difficult if the DNR continues losing money and staff. Gov. Jennifer Granholm included more spending cuts in her latest budget proposal.

Population surveys and disease surveillance programs will be among the most vulnerable down the road, Humphries said. "Those take lots of man hours to actually go out and check fish, check deer, check wildlife species."
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