People Outdoors: 'They Do Stupid Things'
Picture a guy in bikini underwear picking blueberries. The weather turns nasty, the temperature drops to the 40s, and he gets disoriented and lost. Will Maine's sportsmen and women pay to find him?
That rhetorical question was asked and answered in 1996 by Paul Jacques, then a state representative from Waterville. “They get lost because they do stupid things. They get themselves in a situation, and we go bail them out,” Jacques said. “But the sportsmen are getting sick and tired of paying for it.”
I know time hasn’t stopped because Jacques isn’t House majority leader any more, he’s deputy commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW). But as I was cruising through the recent news stories and blogs about the proposed hike in fishing and hunting fees, I felt as if only the numbers had changed. The headline on a recent Sun Journal story, “State legislators explore IF&W funding options,” could have run any year since the department’s name was changed from “Inland Fisheries and Game” in 1975.
But if by chance you’re new to Maine or have been living in a cone of silence, you should know that IFW is funded primarily through license and registration fees from hunting, anglers, boaters, snowmobilers and ATV owners. The department not only oversees those activities, but provides services that benefit all Mainers, from managing non-game species to enforcing litter laws. By law, the Maine Warden Service, which absorbs a huge chunk of IFW’s budget, is the lead agency in searches for lost people, including everyone from hunters and anglers to toddlers and Alzheimer’s patients.
There’s never enough money to do everything everyone wants, so the biennial IFW budget crisis is as predictable as wind on Mt. Washington. And this year’s solutions are just variations on incredibly familiar themes:
• A $19 annual fee on canoeists and kayakers who don't already possess a hunting, fishing or trapping license, proposed by Rep. Jane Eberle, D-South Portland.
• Charging lost people to be rescued, unless they have a $20 “Maine Rescue Card” or a hunting, fishing or trapping license, proposed by Rep. Tom Saviello, U-Wilton.
• Lumping programs that don't apply to fee-paying sportsmen into a special IFW division funded by all taxpayers, proposed by Sen. David Trahan, R-Lincoln.
• Raising license fees $3.50, proposed by Gov. John Baldacci.
It is, as Jane Austen might say if she hunted or fished, a truth universally acknowledged in the sporting community that it’s unfair they bear the brunt of IFW’s budget and that everyone else in Maine ought to be made to pay – somehow – their fair share.
Or as George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine puts it:
1996: “There's a very good case to be made that the general fund ought to be providing some kind of support for this department. People love their moose, they love everything about the outdoors, they love having a warden come to take care of a skunk or that deer they hit, but they pay nothing.”
1997: “The old solution of going back to the same loyal customers and charging them more for the same or fewer opportunities is not the answer.”
2001: “The people of this state have to wake up to the fact that they have to invest more money if they want an outdoors economy.”
2005: “The governor wants to run for reelection as the sportsmen’s champion and his people are over here skewering us on the budget. Does he know? I know he cares. He will care when we go over there and point it out to him.”
2008: “It is unfair to ask sportsmen to pay more for less.”
2009: “We would welcome any new public revenue; all we get off the appropriations table are crumbs. Maybe there won't be game wardens on the Saco River next summer, maybe it will be the Wild West out there, maybe then they will want to contribute.”
So far, getting “non-consumptive users” to pay their share has been as successful as convincing Miss Elizabeth Bennett to marry Mr. Collins. It doesn’t work, like the “We Care” voluntary payment for which only a handful of people volunteered. It never quite happens, like when Gov. Angus King and the Legislature approved a law to allocate “a General Fund appropriation of 18 percent of the department’s requested biennial budget.” It turns out to be politically risky and/or legally unenforceable, which is the usual fate of the canoe/kayak tax. Or it’s morally distasteful and incredibly bad PR, like sending a bill for saving a life.
On the flip side, hunters, anglers, snowmobilers, boaters and ATV riders don’t want to stop enjoying their sports. They don’t want to pay more, but unfair or not, they probably will. Even though they wield a lot of political influence, they can’t beat back every attempt to raise fees and this is a particularly bad budget year.
So if the best predictor of the future is the past, legislators will resolve this IFW budget crisis by increasing license and registration fees.
As Paul Jacques said during IFW’s 2005 budget crisis, “If the apple is poison, eventually they go bite the orange.”
Roberta Scruggs has reported on Maine environment and environmental policymakers for more than two decades.