The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) says it has a $10 million fund balance in its Fish and Game Fund — a marked turnaround from the $4 million shortfall at least one lawmaker last week said would have to be covered by one-time revenues from the Michigan Business Tax (MBT).
"This is not news," DNR spokeswoman Mary DETTLOFF said. "It was announced at the (National Resources Commission) meeting on Oct. 11."
Still, it was news last week to Rep. Mike LAHTI (D-Hancock), chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee. He said it would have been helpful to know earlier in this year's budgeting process.
"Still, it's good news," he said. "When they were budgeting, I think they were surprised themselves."
A hearing on DNR funding is slated for Tuesday. Lahti said he'd propose the $4 million for Fish and Game come out of its fund balance, instead of raising fees or using MBT money. He hopes to move it out of committee Tuesday.
As for the announcement Friday by Rep. Joel SHELTROWN (D-West Branch) that he'd brokered a deal with Gov. Jennifer GRANHOLM's administration to use the MBT money, Lahti said, "I don't know where he got that from."
Sheltrown could not be reached for comment Monday.
Dettloff stressed that the DNR is not running a surplus, since Fish and Game is budgeted to run a $10 million fund balance "to make sure in case there's a major dam failure, we have money in reserve."
She said it's "like having a minimum balance in your checking account, although that's somewhat simplistic."
DNR accounts for the higher-than-expected fund balance due to higher returns on its investments by the Department of Treasury, an increase of 25,000 hunters over the last two years and cuts made to the department as directed by Granholm's executive order.
"We took it much more seriously than any other department, according to the administration," Dettloff said.
DNR is down from 1,600 employees in 2005 to 1,400 today, with dozens of positions open.
Although Dettloff acknowledged lawmakers could use $4 million of the fund balance this year, she stressed the importance of keeping "healthy fund balances."
Still, that seems like a hard sell to legislators, confused over shifting budget numbers. Besides, they haven't been sympathetic to DNR's calls to hike fees from the start.
"There probably wasn't very much taste for raising fees this year," Lahti acknowledges.
But Dettloff said the Fish and Game Fund would be running a deficit by Fiscal Year (FY) 2009, so the Legislature still must address long-term funding needs.
That goes for the DNR in general, hampered by a large number of restricted funds, she said. Fee increases should be an option.
Sen. Michelle McMANUS (R-Lake Leelanau), chair of the Senate subcommittee, has always opposed fee increases for hunting and fishing licenses. She could not be reached for comment Monday.
Lahti left the door open for a future fee increase.
"The department has been through a lot this year," he said.
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