Arkansas Game and Fish Commission proposes to increase hunting and fishing fees

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission officials have identified a goal of about $15 million more per year they want to raise through licensing fee restructuring, the commission’s director said Wednesday, Austin Booth, to state legislators.

The goal would be to raise about $12 million more per year from Arkansas resident licenses and about $3 million more per year from out-of-state resident licenses, he said in response to questions from State Sen. Ricky Hill, R-Cabot. .

“But the exact licensing structure, we haven’t finalized that yet,” Booth said during the Legislative Council and Joint Budget Committee hearing on the commission’s proposed budget for fiscal years 2024 and 2025.

The current fiscal year 2023 started on July 1 and ends on June 30, 2023.

“We know what the revenue need is, but we’re still working on how that breaks down among the current products we have,” he said.

The license fee restructuring is intended to simplify and consolidate hunting and fishing license options for the user and to structure fees around consumption and give the commission more information to serve the Arkansans, Booth said.

Going forward, he said in a written statement, commission staff will continue to work with the Legislative Assembly, commissioners and constituents to develop the best licensing restructuring model by the regular session of 2023, which begins on January 9.

Commission staff will present an informative overview of the potential licensing restructuring no later than the January commission meeting, Booth said.

“The AGFC will seek to bring the best model forward in the form of a bill at the 2023 General Assembly,” he said in his written statement. “Once the restructuring of the license is approved by the Legislative Assembly, the commissioners of the AGFC would have the option of implementing it with at least 30 days’ notice to the public and an additional 30-day public comment period. .”

Once enacted and approved by the Game and Fish Commission, the restructuring could take effect no later than July 1, 2024, Booth said.

The commission collected a five-year average of $28.2 million in license fees, and projects received $27 million in license fees in fiscal year 2024.

Booth told lawmakers the agency’s goal of $15 million a year in increased revenue through restructured licensing fees would help the commission deal with its loss of buying power through fee revenue. of license.

The commission’s main sources of funding include the state’s conservation sales tax which fluctuates with the state’s economy, some federal funds and license fees, he said, and the Stool the agency’s three-legged funding sources must be strong to enable it to make long-term decisions.

The state conservation sales tax raised an average of $36 million per year for the commission over a five-year period and federal aid repayments raised an average of $22 million per year over a period of five years.

Booth pointed out to state lawmakers that the last resident fishing license increase was in 1984 and the last hunting license increase was in the mid-1990s.

The resident fishing license fee is $10.50. The price of the sports resident’s hunting license is $25.

Booth said increased licensing fee revenue would help the commission fund short-term capital projects to upgrade its infrastructure.

More importantly, the increased revenue would allow the commission to provide more outdoor opportunities for the Arkansans, including more hunting and fishing opportunities, more access to underserved areas and more recreational shooting opportunities for archery, pistols and rifles, he said.

Booth said the agency also wants to make its wildlife management areas more attractive to people other than anglers and hunters, like gravel bikers, bird watchers, paddlers and hikers, and get them to support the conversation.

He said the commission does not plan to propose tripling the cost of resident fishing licenses to adjust for inflation since 1984.

“It’s not going to be anything that extreme,” Booth said.

In the 2021 regular session, moves to increase license fees, stamps and permits stalled in the Legislative Assembly.

In its budget handbook, the commission said the licensing restructuring would provide Arkansans and the state’s $9.7 billion outdoor recreation industry with the following:

• The continued development of a Private Lands Division to provide private landowners with housing incentives and technical assistance.

• The continued development of a recreational shooting division to increase public access to shooting and deepen the connection between conservation and hunting.

• Addition of 5,000 acres of priority habitat and public access to the Wildlife Management Area system.

• Renovation of three lakes and major improvement of habitat and fishing on 30 reservoirs.

• Renewed commitment to black bass anglers through tournament and stocking programs.

• Water quality projects on 200 miles of rivers and streams.

• Habitat restoration on 30,000 acres throughout Arkansas.

• Modernization of major committee infrastructure.

“Without the restructuring, however, the commission will be forced to prioritize current readiness over the growth needed to meet the desires of the Arkansans,” the commission said in its budget handbook. “Instead, the Commission will first prioritize legacy maintenance of the existing infrastructure and continuous improvement of the Commission’s IT and cybersecurity platforms. At best, not restructuring preserves the posture responsiveness of the agency.”

In fiscal year 2023, the commission’s budget is $166.2 million, including $149.2 million for operations, according to its budget manual. Funding sources include $75.6 million in fund balances, $41.8 million in conservation sales taxes, $29.8 million in license fee revenue, and $26.1 million in federal revenues.

Afterwards, Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, said the proposed restructuring of Game and Fish Commission licensing fees “should be something in the middle.

“That might not be all they need,” he said. “But you also can’t come back and do it every year, so you have to get as big a bite as they think they can sell to the legislature and the public.

“If you rate yourself, you have issues with people … in this next generation to support what they’re doing,” said Rice, who is co-chairman of the Legislative Council,

Rep. Frances Cavenaugh asks a question during the Budget Committee’s Joint Budget Hearings Wednesday during the funding review for state agencies, including the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Aurora J. William