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18
Fishing, hunting license fees on hold again

JOE KAFKA

Associated Press


PIERRE, S.D. - A legislative committee again refused Friday to allow increased fees for people who fish and hunt in South Dakota, and state officials said it may be too late now to make any changes for next year.

The proposed fee increase would raise an estimated $2.15 million in additional revenues annually.

The Legislature's Rules Review Committee first rejected the higher fees last month, primarily because the Wildlife Division within the Game, Fish and Parks Department has a large budget reserve. Legislators also said they wanted more information on use of the additional revenues.

The proposal to increase license fees was returned to the rules panel Friday when the Game, Fish and Parks Commission voted last month for the second time in favor of the higher fees.

Prices for hunting and fishing licenses have not increased for several years.

GF&P officials outlined proposed uses for the extra money Friday, but the Rules Review Committee decided 4-2 that it would not approve the higher fees until those plans are explained to the Legislature's Interim Appropriations Committee on Dec. 8.

Sen. Eric Bogue, R-Faith, said plans for the additional money should have been presented to legislators during their past annual session in January and February. Although the Wildlife Division's budget is not under control of the Legislature, lawmakers are briefed each year on that budget.

However, the fee increase was not proposed until summer, and GF&P officials still do not have concrete plans for its use. Tentative plans for the money were unveiled in some detail Friday, but members of the rules panel still were not satisfied.

"We needed to see this last year ... not after you came before us asking for more money," Bogue said. "This entire process is out of whack."

Doug Hansen, director of the Wildlife Division, said the additional funds may be used for such things as leasing additional land for hunting, upgrades at state fish hatcheries, hiring more Game, Fish and Parks Department employees to improve relations with landowners, and help pay for employees' annual raises next year.

If license fees are raised, Hansen said about half of the extra money could be used to pay more to landowners who allow hunters onto their property as part of the popular Walk-In Program.

Hansen also said up to $11 million is needed to improve the state's three fish hatcheries. Extra license revenues would be used to pay the annual debt on bonds that would be issued for the hatchery work, he said.

"In order to proceed with those things, we need the funding base to be able to do that," Hansen told the Rules Review Committee.

Ken Barker, GF&P Commission chairman, said major improvements are needed at the Cleghorn Springs hatchery in Rapid City. It will be necessary to close the hatchery while it is being rebuilt, he said.

"It was worse than I was expecting," he said of a recent report on the condition of the fish hatcheries.

There has been little public opposition to the proposed fee increases, Barker added.

"What I'm hearing, by and large, is that we're on the right track," he said.

Hansen said the Wildlife Division may have an $8 million reserve at the end of the next fiscal year.

Because of the vagaries of annual license sales and the revenues they generate, a healthy budget cushion is needed to operate the division, he said. An ideal cushion would be 50 percent of the agency's budget, he said. It has been only about 30 percent in recent years, Hansen said.

A sharp decline drop in pheasant numbers can lead to a steep drop in revenues because fewer hunting licenses may be sold if there are fewer pheasants to attract hunters, he said.

"We don't feel that we should depend on the cash balance as an operational source of revenues because sooner or later it's like living off your savings account," Hansen said. "You run out at some point."

Rep. Richard Engels, D-Hartford, said he was concerned that GF&P had estimated its reserve would total $6.6 million at the end of the last fiscal year, but the leftover amount was actually $10.2 million.

2005 hunting and fishing licenses are supposed to go on sale Dec. 15, and Barker said they cannot be printed until prices have been set for those licenses. Friday's delay may mean that prices cannot be raised until 2006, he said.

Bogue, however, felt the department would have enough time to print the licenses in advance of the New Year if the Rules Review Committee would meet immediately after the Appropriations Committee meeting on Dec. 8.

"It may be a legislative hurdle, but it could be done," Bogue told Barker, who was clearly not pleased with the outcome of Friday's meeting.

Legislators continued to discuss the logistics of the license issue after GF&P officials left Friday's meeting. Bogue said he still felt it would be possible for the state agency to make new licenses available next month.

"It looks like they need to calm down a little bit," the Senate Republican leader said.

The fee increases cover a wide range of fishing and hunting licenses. Resident fishing licenses now cost $21 and would increase to $25; $5 senior citizen fishing licenses would go $10. Nonresident fishing licenses would rise by $1 to $60.

Resident hunting licenses for small game would go from $22 to $24, and nonresident small-game licenses would rise from the current $95 to $105.

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