Move to block higher hunting and fishing fees fails

An effort to block a 20 percent increase in the cost of state hunting and fishing licenses failed in a legislative committee last week, meaning the higher fees will take effect July 1, as approved earlier by the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission.

But members of the Joint Government Operations Committee left open the possibility of revisiting funding for Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency operations in future meetings or during next year’s legislative session.

State Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, made the motion to “stay” or block the fee increase, contending TWRA has $103 million in reserve funds and will be getting more money from the federal government than anticipated in the coming year.

Chris Richardson, legislative liaison for TWRA, said only two of the six reserve funds referenced can be used for agency general operations, the others earmarked by state law for specific purposes such as wetlands acquisition or boating safety programs.

The agency had to use $5 million from its operating reserves to balance last year’s budget, leaving about $32 million, and will have to use a similar amount this year, leaving about $27 million when the state fiscal year starts July 1, Richardson said. Almost $10 million will be needed to upgrade TWRA’s communications system and other equipment, leaving around $18 million, he said.

In effect, Richardson said TWRA is operating at a deficit, despite budget cuts, and needs the revenue from higher license fees to maintain the status quo.

Under the joint committee rules, state House and Senate members vote separately on a motion. Bailey’s motion failed on the House vote, with seven members voting no and only one, state Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, supporting it. Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, then did not take a vote of senators, saying if a motion fails in one chamber that is not necessary.

Subsequently, the panel held votes on various other motions that indicated a majority of senators might have been favoring at least a delay in the fee increase while a majority of House members differed.

The upshot was a stalemate, with no motion approved to do anything and Bell suggesting at one point members would be “beating a dead horse” to continue voting. Without a vote to halt or delay by the committee, the new fees will go into effect as scheduled under relevant state laws.

Bailey said afterward many legislators have concerns about the amount of the increase and funding of TWRA operations in general. He predicted the Legislature will “look at the agency as a whole” to ensure the new revenue is needed and that money is being appropriately spent.

He predicted that when hunters and fishermen start paying higher fees after July 1, many will be surprised, and protests to legislators will increase.

The General Assembly in 2006 voted to let the wildlife commission raise fees without direct legislative approval, although subject to oversight through the committee — as are all rules promulgated by state agencies.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey sponsored the 2006 bill and said he supports the increased hunting and fishing fees — the first hike since 2005 — as a necessary adjustment, although he would have preferred smaller increases over the past decade, rather than a 20 percent jump at once.

“The increase — what is it? $28 to $36?… You can go to the movies and eat popcorn and that’s going to cost you $36,” Ramsey said.

Actually, the increase in an annual hunting and fishing combination license for Tennessee residents is from $28 to $34. There are dozens of other fees involved, collectively projected to produce about $18 million in new annual revenue for the TWRA. (Note: The full list of fees and the increases is HERE.)