Editorial-Opinion April 2016

License fee increase plays out with legislative maneuvers.

Steve Burch | April 12, 2016

By the time you get this magazine, the Georgia legislative session will have ended, and the fate of a bill that would raise license and permit fees for sportsmen will be known.

As I sit here writing this on March 24, on the last day remaining in the session, I’ve been told the license fee increase will not pass. However, legislators are known to do last-hour work on the final day. If there is an increase, it will be because something called “The Shoal Bass” bill passed.

And that is far from the strangest piece of this journey.

So now, not knowing, seems a good time to take account of the process and the path that has brought us to watching Shoal Bass bill on the final day of the Georgia legislative session.

I hope to get through this summation without siding one way or another on support or opposition to an increase. This has been a shadowy trip to an increase, and I think you will find some of this telling interesting.

It began last summer when WRD laid out a case for there to be an increase in the cost for sportsmen to recreate. They raised two solid points that argue for an increase. The first point is that there had been no increase in a number of years. As far as it went, that statement was true. Their second point was that surrounding states all had higher costs for the same licenses. That point was completely true.

What they carefully avoided noting was that during the period when they were, in their eyes, falling behind financially, they had transferred  operations cost onto the license cost of sportsmen by requiring that sportsmen pay an out-of-state bank if they wished to buy a license. This resulted in a operational cost cut for WRD of millions of dollars per year. This move was an administrative financial windfall to WRD each year, because sportsmen are paying more to buy the same license.

Be that as it may, WRD held hearings around the state inviting comment about a potential license fee increase. Striking in its commonality at these meetings was this question from sportsmen. “What are you going to do with the money?”

In a nutshell, WRD’s bureaucratic response was… We are just soliciting comments at this time. What do you think we should do with the money?

In this manner, they avoid committing themselves to anything, and at the same time, offended no one by leaving out someone’s pet project. Smart marketing move, perhaps.

Then the process went dark until January when a bill appeared in the legislature. WRD will tell you the bill was written by a legislator. GON will tell you that the bill was written by WRD and select (read that as favored) nonprofit conservation organizations, and then it was introduced by a legislator.

Anyway, in the current climate of government, bureaucracy and politics, WRD and other parts of DNR don’t get along as well as sportsmen might hope. This tension resulted in the license bill being pulled.

But wait. A second faction of the conservation community re-wrote the bill a bit, and “attached” it to House Bill 483, “The Shoal Bass” bill. This was a simple piece of legislation to designate the shoal bass as Georgia’s “official native riverine sport fish.” It passed the House early in the session but was languishing in the Senate in obscurity. With the license-fee increase attachment, HB 483 went from about two paragraphs to 22 pages.

The Shoal Bass bill was given new life because it could “carry” the license fee increases despite the passage of “crossover” day, when no bills are supposed to be considered if they haven’t passed either the House or Senate.

With the attachment play avoiding crossover day rules, legislators just needed to agree to the now-modified language of the bill. Maybe it will pass, maybe it won’t. By the time you read this, it has or it hasn’t. What is worth noting in all this inside baseball process is the internal struggle within DNR for sportsmen and our money. Sportsmen have gladly paid a bunch of money—starting the concept and funding wildlife conservation. Through license fees and a substantial federal tax, we pay. Are we served, or a pawn?

Whether or not the second license fee bill passes, a message was been sent from the legislature. A faction that once held great legislative influence has been damaged by the divide.

I do not think this rift is fatal. Some internal soul-searching may heal the bruises. I doubt they see it the way I do, but steps could create a better relationship with all stakeholders.

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