An expansive effort to restructure Louisiana's fishing and hunting licenses and increase fees on commercial and recreational license-holders for the first time in more than two decades won easy approval from the Senate Monday.
The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries pitched the measure sponsored by Rep. Tony Bacala, a Praireville Republican, as essential to the agency's long-term viability and offered dire warnings of shorter hunting seasons and stricter bag limits if the proposal failed.
Historically, the agency relied on royalties from oil and gas drilling in its wildlife management areas to sustain its operations. But as oil prices have fallen, those revenues have dried up — dropping roughly $60 million in less than a decade. The proposal advanced Monday would boost the agency's annual revenues by around $19 million, according to a nonpartisan fiscal analysis.
House Bill 691 would create a new fee structure with fewer licensing categories that cover more privileges. The basic fishing license for residents, for example, would increase from $9.50 to $17, but would also cover permits for gear like hoop nets, slat traps and wire nets.
It passed the Senate on a 35-0 vote and now heads back to the House floor before landing on Gov. John Bel Edwards' desk.
Officials with the agency said that two-thirds of license-holders would see a cost increase of $10 or less. Still, during a committee hearing, commercial fisherman said a hike in fees is the last thing they need as they recover from last year's hurricane season.
"The commercial fisherman in my district still feel like the fees and increases are too large and too fast," Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican, said Monday. "I am going to support the bill but I'm asking the department to continue to look at ways to adjust the fees so they're fair."
Lawmakers this year bailed the agency out with $17 million infusion of taxpayer funds and officials said without restructuring the user pay system, the department could be back again next year asking for even more money. Recreational license fees haven't been updated since 2000, while commercial license fees have been stagnant since the 1980s.
"I think we all take responsibility for not bringing something before now," said Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, a Lafayette Democrat.
The department's secretary Jack Montoucet previously offered a long list of ripple effects if the funding structure is denied: roads and culverts to wildlife management areas could go unrepaired; waterways might become overgrown with weeds like Giant Salvinia; catch limits could be placed on commercial fisheries; and youth educational programs could be cut.
“This bill allows us to continue to be a user pay system. If not, we’re going to have to rely on the legislature to give us funds. Our message to them is: would you rather money going to your district or allow the users to support themselves,” said Bryan McClinton, a department undersecretary overseeing finance, at a Baton Rouge Press Club event in May.