Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries will ask lawmakers to raise the cost of recreational hunting and fishing licenses and other user fees to close a budget gap that is only projected to worsen in the future, the agency's leader said Wednesday.
Department Secretary Jack Montoucet told the Senate Finance Committee that the license and fee hike proposal, which hasn't been filed yet for public viewing, would raise $17 million a year for the agency.
"We haven't had an adjustment in what the licenses cost in 20 years," Montoucet said. "We are doing 50 more things that have been put on our plate" since then.
When LSU researchers recently set out to gather data on southern flounder, they ran into a problem: they could hardly find any in Louisiana.
Montoucet proposed a smaller license restructuring two years ago to consolidate licenses, reduce the types of permits and increase some costs, but the House rejected it. Since then, the agency's financial problems have worsened.
"The day of reckoning is here," said state Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, a Lafayette Democrat.
The discussion arose in the Senate committee's ongoing budget hearings about the spending plan that Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed for the financial year that starts July 1.
The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries relies on the Conservation Fund as one of its primary sources of financing. But collections for the fund have continued to fall annually since the 2015-16 budget year.
Revenue from oil and gas drilling in wildlife management areas is declining, and the state is seeing fewer dollars each year from licensing fees as more people buy lifetime hunting and fishing licenses, said Bryan McClinton, the department's chief financial officer.
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Edwards is proposing a $17 million influx of general state tax dollars to fill a short-term gap in the agency and keep its budget largely standstill at $157 million next year.
But Montoucet said he'd have to keep returning for more state general fund cash each year without licensing and fee hikes, and he suggested that wasn't fair. He said taxpayers who don't use the services shouldn't have to foot the bill for them.
"Our programs are user-pay. If you use the resources, you pay for the resources," Montoucet said.
Senators said they supported the idea of raising charges on people who hunt and fish and use the wildlife management areas.
"Everybody knows that in Louisiana we're known for our wildlife and fisheries. We need to make sure that we keep it at a top priority," said Sen. Mark Abraham, a Lake Charles Republican. "I'll do everything I can to make sure you're made whole."
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Sen. Mike Fesi, a Houma Republican, suggested that in the future the agency should consider incremental fee increases annually, rather than a large increase after 20 years.
It's unclear if House members, many of whom opposed the license and fee hikes two years ago, will be more supportive this time. The proposed increases require a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to pass in the legislative session that begins April 12.
Lawmakers will craft a final version of next year's budget in that session and likely won't wrap up that work until June.