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Editorial: Raising fees is no way to fund Fish and Game

Last modified: 9/20/2015 11:06:13 PM
Nearly every basement, attic, garage or barn offers an opportunity to explore the archeology of past passions and pursuits: the wooden tennis rackets still in their presses hanging from a nail, golf clubs in a leather bag cracked with age, the fishing rods standing in a bucket in the corner, the red- and black-checked wool jacket and blaze orange hat on a hook in the barn.

The latest proposal by the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game to raise license fees to combat its perennial budget shortfall will add to that collection of artifacts. It will also cost the state more money than it nets for one of the only self-funded departments of its kind.

Fish and Game faces a $1.2 million deficit in its biennial budget. Last year, the Legislature gave the agency’s commissioners the right to raise fees. The commission wants to use that new authority to increase basic hunting and fishing license fees by $10. Since fees haven’t increased since 2003, the increase makes superficial sense. But economically, that dog won’t hunt.

The increases, which would raise a basic fishing license to $43 per year from $33, would make New Hampshire’s license fees the highest in the region. They would cause a percentage of license holders – the agency estimates between 5 and 10 percent – to forgo buying a license. Many of them will be men and women who love the outdoors but find themselves too busy to get afield or afloat very often. That doesn’t mean, however, that they aren’t dreaming of leisurely days, buying the latest fishing lures and other outdoor gear, and savoring that one week a year in deer camp or on the lake.

Cultural changes and the increased development of forests and agricultural lands have caused a decline in the sale of hunting licenses.

New Hampshire sells about 50,000 hunting licenses and 110,000 fishing licenses annually, a figure that has have been flat for a decade. Meanwhile, expenses continued to rise.

Hunters and anglers collectively spend billions on their sport. Studies, including one done for Maine’s Fish and Game Department, estimated that hunters spend an average of $1,150 per year on trips, lodging, gear, gas, meals, guides and the like annually. Anglers spend even more: $1,429.

Use New Hampshire Fish and Game’s lowest estimate, a 5 percent drop in license sales, and a frugal estimate of $1,100 average spending for hunters and anglers alike, and the loss to the state’s economy when that many people hang up their rods and guns comes to $8.8 million. Some of that spending would have been subject to the state’s tax on rooms and meals, and alcoholic beverages. By rights, that loss should be subtracted from Fish and Game’s gain from the increase.

The commission created to suggest ways to better finance Fish and Game said citizens and lawmakers should rethink whether the requirement that the department be self-funded still makes sense. It doesn’t.

User fee increases, particularly for optional activities rather than, say, owning a car, quickly hit the point of diminishing returns. In Fish and Game’s case, the increases aren’t even fair, since all residents and visitors benefit from the department’s work.

It’s time to fund a far bigger share of the cost of operating the department with revenue from the rooms and meals tax. Trying to fund it with fee increases is a dumb business move for the state.


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