Officials at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources say the state needs to consider hunting and fishing license fee hikes to prevent the state's Game and Fish Fund from being depleted by 2015.
License fees make up more than half of the fund, which helps pay for the conservation officers and biologists who maintain wildlife and fish habitat throughout the state.
During the annual DNR Roundtable in Brooklyn Center on Friday, DNR Fish and Wildlife Division Director Dave Schad said more money is needed just to maintain current programs.
"We're not talking about a bunch of new programs and a bunch of bells and whistles here. We're talking about just reinvesting in some of this core, day-to-day work," Schad told the several hundred people gathered at the event.
Schad said Minnesota's license fees haven't kept up with inflation. In addition, he said, most other states charge more than Minnesota does for licenses. For example, Minnesota is 36th nationally on the list ranking the price of resident annual fishing licenses from highest to lowest.
Newly appointed DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr has only been on the job for a day or so, but he also said raising fees might be necessary.
"If we want to continue those core functions at the level they have been, we have to look somehow at increasing that revenue or we're going to go into the red," Landwehr told the stakeholders gathered at the DNR Roundtable.
But getting the Legislature to approve fee hikes might be harder this year than in the recent past, as Republicans control both the House and Senate for the first time in 38 years. They campaigned on avoiding tax and fee increases to address the state's budget issues.
State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, is the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. He said he's open to considering higher fees on fishing and hunting licenses, especially if the DNR can show it's carrying out programs more efficiently.
"Our caucus has been very strong, and carried the message quite frankly from the folks that put us into these positions -- that fees or taxes, we don't want to pay any more," Ingebrigtsen said. "But the bottom line is it takes money to operate."
Ingebrigtsen said he plans to speak with Landwehr about providing services at less cost to the state. Fee increases could be part of the picture, but Ingebrigtsen didn't make any promises about considering them this year.
A plan to increase license fees could surface as part of Gov. Dayton's budget proposal in February.
Schad said it would be best if the Legislature addressed license fees during this session, because the increases wouldn't take effect immediately.
"We understand that this is a difficult and challenging time, given the economic climate here, to have some of these discussions," he said. "I do think we have an obligation to bring this forward, even though it is tough."
Joe Duggan, who chairs the Game and Fish Fund's Budget Oversight Committee which is made up of citizens and stakeholders, said the committee plans to send letters to legislators next week recommending fee increases.
"We know the flight path and we need to take care of it," Duggan said.