FROM THE GRAND RAPIDS PRESS;
The Granholm administration should take a lesson from its so-far skunked bid to increase hunting and fishing license fees: Don't rush the target.
In general, the proposed fee hikes are justified, but they would have come at sportsmen too quickly, suddenly tripling and quadrupling amounts for some licenses.
Outcries at the size of the jumps should have been foreseen by the administration. Resident deer hunters, whose licenses would have gone from $15 to $30, made themselves heard. Among others, so did senior citizens, whose fishing licenses were to leap from $11.20 to $32. So broad was the opposition to such hikes that no lawmaker in either house would even introduce the fee bills.
But though the tactic misfired, it was pointed in the right direction. License fees should be increased. Current fees were adopted in 1996 as part of a plan that called for modest increases in succeeding years. But those later adjustments weren't made, as the DNR instead chose a short-term patch: plugging budget holes with trust-fund reserves. More trouble is a slump in timber sales from state land, from which the state receives a cut. That revenue, projected to be down by $6 million next year, pays for forest management programs. The budget's increases in sportsmen fees would compensate for some of the decline.
The deeper DNR problem is that the Legislature has siphoned almost all general-fund money out of the agency's budget. That's despite the strong economic benefit that all of Michigan gets from DNR-supported activities: snowmobiling, camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, park use and more. That broad public gain in the past resulted in sturdy support from the general budget. Thirty years ago, general taxpayer dollars comprised about half of the DNR's budget. Contrast that with the budget proposed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm for the year beginning Sept. 1: Of the $287.2 million for the DNR, about $25 million or just under
9 percent comes from the general fund -- and half of that goes to local governments in "swamp tax," amounts paid in lieu of taxes on state land.
The fees proposed by Ms. Granholm generally aren't outlandish. For the most part, they are in the same league with charges in neighbor states. But they probably would cut into hunting and fishing, which ought to concern this outdoor-oriented state, and they may shrink the DNR's base of fee-payers.
The long-term solution can't be continued raising of user fees. Also, plain fairness dictates that the general fund provide a greater share of support. That fits both with the widely shared economic benefits of sportsmen activities and the fact that many users of public lands pay little or nothing: backpackers, bird watchers, canoers, mushroom and berry pickers and others.
The answer for now is to raise the fees, but do it over several years. Reduce discounts for seniors, but keep some significant breaks. Most of all, Ms. Granholm and lawmakers need to find a broader base of support for the DNR. That includes state park campgrounds, which also receive no support from the general fund despite the millions of visitors they draw to Michigan and the hundreds of millions of dollars they pump into rural economies.
This doesn't have to be a choice between the outdoors and the schools or health care for the poor. When lawmakers and the governor want to invest in favored purposes, they find the dollars. They regularly put millions into university construction and art subsidies. The last budget had $4 million for the Detroit Zoo. The Super Bowl got $8 million. Michigan's woods and waters are at least as deserving.
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