With the standstill of Senate Law 679 in the committee on Tuesday, the legislative period ends without Arcanians having to face higher fees for hunting and fishing licenses.
The campaign was hectic, with three separate bills increasing hunting and fishing license fees filed within a month. All three are still active, but they will remain on the Interim Studies Committee and will likely be submitted.
Strategically, it is an inconvenient time to raise hunting and license fees for local residents. Many lawmakers face re-election, and with the ghost of coronavirus still looming over our lives and livelihoods, many could not justify increasing the basic cost of living for many Arcansans.
State Sens. Charles Beckham and Ben Gilmore, two freshly baked Republicans, maintained a united front against licensing on three major counts. First, Beckham said, he can’t keep the language on all three bills, which have automatically increased royalties on a regular basis to keep up with inflation. He said automatic increases would have given the Game and Fish Commission complete autonomy without ever having to ask lawmakers for money again.
Beckham said the automatic increases were intended to protect lawmakers during the election so that future increases are not attributed to individual votes. He said this option was personally unacceptable as he was fundamentally against the delegation of legislative powers to collect fees from constituents.
A simple solution could have been to add language that would have required the legislature to take a decision to pass the increases. This is a simple procedural matter that would eliminate the usual practice of passing a bill.
Second, when the Commission campaigned for Amendment 75 to be passed in 1997, which set the statewide conservation sales tax at 1/8%, Beckham said the sales tax revenue would allow it to permanently freeze hunting and license fees for residents .
Third, Beckham said the resident license fee increase at this point was an inappropriate request given the full social, medical, and economic circumstances.
A former member of the Game and Fish Commission noted that sales tax revenues are keeping pace with inflation, despite the fact that hunting and fishing license sales have been fixed since 1984 and 1990. Federal income from an excise tax on the sale of firearms, ammunition, hunting equipment, fishing gear and other covered items has also kept pace with inflation, although the actual amount of these taxes fluctuates. Only 25% of the Commission’s revenue streams – hunting and fishing licenses – are shallow.
While there is a public perception that the Commission is overstaffed, the Agency is also understaffed in key areas. The Game and Fish Commission also uses around 41% of its budget for salaries and social benefits. As the people do the conservation work to accomplish the agency’s mission, this percentage is not unreasonable. A cut in payroll would not fill the Commission’s funding gap.
It is believed that the Commission is spending an excessive amount of money on vehicles. Longtime readers of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette may recall that the commission significantly reduced its vehicle fleet in 2010. At that point, the commission reduced the number of vehicles for employees by around 70%.
At around the same time, the Commission also introduced a directive to keep the fleet up to date while reducing replacement costs. Before the Commission passed this directive, it used vehicles and other motorized devices until their value was completely devalued and then sold them at auction for pennies on the dollar.
Because the agency only replaced equipment when it was worn out, the agency replaced vehicles and equipment in an emergency, which put a strain on the agency’s budget.
Under the current directive, the Commission is turning off vehicles with lower mileage and less useful life so that the items can be sold for more money and the cost of replacing them can be offset. Vehicle and equipment replacement is now built into the agency’s budget, avoiding emergency replacement peaks.
While the Game and Fish Commission staff haven’t had any raises since 2017, this is mainly because former Game and Fish director Jeff Crow removed the Game and Fish Commission from the state payroll and implemented an independent plan that is moving quickly turned out to be a mistake.
Many Arkansans have now been living on stagnant wages for more than four years. Many have lost their jobs and businesses in the past year.
According to the press, the commission launched the campaign too late in the session when the Senate majority philosophically opposed a fee increase, did so without a focused sales pitch, and was not prepared to overcome resistance.
When the subject comes up again, the Commission will have a new director, a new chairman and at least one new commissioner.
Beckham said he anticipates repercussions that could include facing a well-funded lead antagonist. Feelings are raw on both sides.