Columnist questions hunting/fishing fee increase after ammo tax windfall

Start of Frank Cagle’s column this week:

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency gets a dime for every box of ammunition sold in Tennessee. You may have heard that since Barack Obama has been president ammo makers have added third shifts to meet the demand as many gun owners have stockpiled the stuff and store shelves are often bare. This has meant a $9.5 million windfall for the TWRA, the agency that regulates hunting, fishing and wildlife management. That’s almost $10 million more than had been budgeted for this year, for a total of $31 million from the feds.

But that hasn’t prevented the agency from increasing the cost of buying a hunting license by almost 20 percent, from $27 to $33. That raises an additional $6 million for TWRA coffers. The extra $9.5 million windfall in ammo sales is half again more than the $6 million fee increase. And somebody needs to find out why they are getting only .09 percent interest on millions of dollars in trust funds.

The appointed commissioners who govern the agency can set license fees at will. They can be vetoed by the Government Operations Committees of the House and Senate, but it requires both committees to agree. The commissioners approved the increase in January, the first in 10 years, but it wasn’t until last week that the issue came before legislative committees. The House committee quickly rubber-stamped it, 7-1.

State Sen. Paul Bailey, a first-term Republican, raised some interesting questions on the Senate side. The federal ammo windfall and the millions of dollars in the TWRA reserve funds made him question why hunters were being asked to pay more. Unfortunately, when the House caved, the Senate vote became moot.

…Bailey pointed out that the TWRA has a reserve fund balance of $33 million in hunting and wildlife and $12.4 million for its boating programs. This money is available for agency operations. There is an additional $43 million in trust funds, and TWRA can use the interest from these funds — about $38,000 last year At less than 1 percent, that return is ridiculously low. That money ought to handled by the state treasurer, who is currently getting returns of over 6 percent. A decent return on the trust funds would be $2.5 million to $3 million in additional revenue, making half of the fee increase unnecessary.

It’s a problem when you have an agency essentially outside the state budget process that is allowed to keep millions in a piggy bank rather than responsibly invested.