MN: License increase still on the table

St. Paul – Proposals to create new fishing and hunting licenses and increase the fees for existing licenses, and to boost watercraft registration fees, haven't been heard yet at the Legislature, but don't rule them out.

The DNR says the money is necessary to fund an aggressive program to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species, and to prevent the Game and Fish Fund from dropping into the red.

While the Republicans who control the state Legislature have so far indicated little willingness to consider raising fees or taxes of any type, the chairs of two influential committees aren't slamming the door shut just yet.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria and chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, says his caucus "is still holding strong on not raising taxes."

"But there is a distinct difference between fees and taxes," he said. "I certainly wouldn't rule it out yet."

He did note, though, that it's not just Republicans who are opposed to the increases sought by Gov. Mark Dayton and the DNR. Some northern DFLers, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, have expressed opposition.

"I'm willing to negotiate it," Ingebrigtsen said.

Both he and Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who chairs the House environment committee, say a conservation officer academy is a priority, for example. Holding academies in the future depends on having the funding.

"There are a lot of folks who don't think it's the right time for the state of Minnesota to be raising fees," McNamara said. "At the same time, that's a dedicated fee. If you are going to hunt or fish, you pay money for it."

It's been more than 10 years since license fees were last increased. McNamara said he's heard from a lot of people who support the increase.

"I personally am open to the idea of fee increases," he said.

McNamara said his main concerns are that the current proposal would funnel too much money to administration. He also wants to deal with the imbalance in spending on fish and wildlife programs.

"We have a huge imbalance now and I don't see how we fix that without significant fish revenue," he said.

Bob Meier, DNR legislative affairs director, said interest in the license-fee proposal continues to grow. A number of hunting and fishing groups have been supportive.

Bills carrying the license-fee increases have been introduced in both the House and Senate.

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, is carrying the Senate bill, SF 1227. Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, has the House version, HF 1583. Neither bill has been heard yet.

As of earlier this week, the lone Republican listed as a co-author was in the House, where Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, had signed on.

The bill includes a variety of fee increases. Among them:

• A resident small game license would increase from $12.50 to $15.50. Nonresident small game licenses would increase from $73 to $90.50.

• Resident firearms deer licenses would increase from $26 to $30, as would muzzleloader licenses. Nonresident firearms and muzzleloader deer licenses would go from $135 to $160.

• Resident fishing licenses would go from $17 to $24; nonresident licenses would go from $37.50 to $39. (A separate proposal would increase the nonresident fishing license surcharge by another $3 and use the money to fight aquatic invasive species.)

The bills also would create a variety of new fishing licenses, including a 72-hour license for $12; a 90-day license for $18; and a three-year license for $69.

The discussion about new licenses, as well as increases, is likely to become more serious as the legislative session winds down and lawmakers begin negotiations with Dayton over how to resolve the state's $5 billion budget deficit.

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