June 8, 2011

Maine wildlife agency funding bill loses vote

The House declines to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot, but may vote again today.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The Maine House, in a preliminary vote Tuesday, narrowly rejected a bill that would ask voters to change the state Constitution to allocate 1.25 percent of sales tax revenue to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The Senate had previously passed the bill by a wide margin.

Tuesday's vote was 92-54 in favor of the bill – nine votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. Four House members were absent.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, said he plans to amend it in the Senate today to reduce the allocation amount to 1.2 percent. He expects that will attract enough votes for the House to pass the bill later today.

Supporters of L.D. 563 say the dedicated tax revenue – about $10.5 million a year with the amendment – would help the chronically underfunded Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife offer more services to sportsmen.

The department is responsible for protecting the state's wildlife and natural resources. It gets about $10 million a year from the federal government, and collects revenue from licenses and fees paid by hunters, fishermen, trappers, recreational boaters, smowmobilers and owners of all-terrain vehicles.

The department, which has a $39 million annual budget and employs nearly 300 people, receives minimal state money. Supporters of L.D. 563 say that some of the department's programs – such as reviews of development permits and searches for lost hikers – benefit all Maine people, so it's only fair that taxpayers cover a portion of its budget.

Attempts over the years to persuade the Legislature to help fund the department have failed, leaving supporters to seek a constitutional amendment, Trahan said.

"The only way this agency will get funded properly is through the Constitution," he said in an interview after the House vote.

The Nature Conservancy, Maine Audubon and the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine have lobbied for the bill.

A decade ago, the Legislature passed a bill requiring that one-fifth of the department's budget be funded with tax money, but the Legislature has ignored the law in budgets it has passed since then, said Matt Dunlap, who heads the Sportsman's Alliance.

This is not a partisan issue; good numbers of Democrats and Republicans are on both sides.

During Tuesday's debate in the House, opponents said that dedicating a portion of the sales tax to one department would be a poor way to make budget decisions and would set a bad precedent.

If there is a strong argument for giving the department more money, lawmakers should make it during the budget process, said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham.

"If the facts are so clear, we should be able make the case in Room 228 and not in our Constitution," he said, speaking of the room in the State House where the Appropriations Committee meets.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who serves on the Appropriations Committee, said he has been trying for 25 years to win more funding for the department.

"I don't like this approach, but I don't know of any other way we can put money there," he said. "If you believe it's time for the state to meet its responsibility, this is the only way you are going to accomplish that."

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at: tbell@mainetoday.com

 

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