Senate to debate hunting fee hikes

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— The Colorado Senate will begin hearing arguments this week on raising non-resident hunting fees, following the House's rejection of another bill that would have granted the Colorado Division of Wildlife enterprise status.

House Bill 1448 would raise non-resident deer licenses from $150 to $270 and elk and bear licenses from $250 to $450. The bill passed in the House Friday with a 38-27 vote and will be on the Senate floor sometime this week.

Wildlife officials claim the increase is necessary because the DOW can no longer afford to manage wildlife the way it has been.

Colorado has the lowest license fees of any western state. Arizona's elk license fee of $303 is closest to Colorado's, but most states charge more than $400, Department of Natural Resources communications director Susan Wadhams said.

If the bill passes as currently written, the fee hike would bring $3.8 million in revenue into the state. The Legislature then would have to approve the money for the DOW to spend, department spokeswoman Chamois Pierson said.

Rep. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, voted against the fee hike, following the lead of hunting groups that consider the hike too high. Taylor said that if non-resident fees are going to be raised, resident fees also should be increased.

Local hunter Kent Holt sees the need for the increase.

"I don't think it's out of line," he said. However, he feels that the resident fees probably should be raised as well. "You get what you pay for," Holt said.

Taylor also was concerned that a large non-resident fee increase would drive away visiting hunters that local outfitters and shops depend on for business.

Russell Gehl, owner of the Toponas Country Store, does 45 percent of his business during the hunting seasons.

"It will affect us a little bit, but I don't think it will too much," he said.

If the bill passes, it will increase the amount of business for this year's hunting seasons. This year's fees have already been set and hunters will want come for the last cheap rates in the West. After that, Gehl expects business to be slowed, but not too much.

"It's just like raising the ski prices," he said. "People get used to it every year."

Though DOW officials are happy to see the fee-hike bill pass out of the House, they're disappointed the Legislature failed to pass HB 1450 or HB 1445, which would have made the agency a separate enterprise.

HB 1445 lost by a 34-39 vote and HB 1450 passed on second reading, but failed on its third reading with a 28-37 vote Friday.

The voted-down enterprise designation would have allowed the DOW to collect revenues without the approval of the Legislature and without TABOR (Taxpayers' Bill of Rights) restrictions.

"Right now we are spending more than we take in," Pierson said. She explained the enterprise designation would have enabled the DOW to set license fees to adjust for the cost of managing wildlife, without giving up revenue because of TABOR laws.

About 70 percent of the DOW's revenue comes from fishing and hunting fees. None of the agency's budget comes from tax dollars, DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury said.

Because the DOW doesn't receives tax dollars, Malmsbury believes the enterprise designation is appropriate.

"When voters passed TABOR in 1992, I don't think they were thinking about Californians buying elk licenses," he said.

Furthermore, not being free from TABOR means if the fee hike is approved, the $3.8 million would have to be squeezed under the state's TABOR revenue cap. If not, the DOW could lose some of the money, Malmsbury said.

Taylor voted against the enterprise bill.

"There's no internal control," he said. "There needs to be legislative oversight."

Granting the DOW enterprise status would have eliminated what control the Legislature has over the agency's spending. He feels that the DOW needs to be accountable for its actions.

Malmsbury said legislative oversight would come when lawmakers annually approve the DOW's budget.

Taylor disagreed, saying that approving the budget doesn't give legislative control over where the money is spent.

"What if they buy more land?" he asked. "They can't take care of what they have right now."

Steve Schroeder, who's on the legislative council, said some representatives wanted to see the results of a study that looks at the operations of the DOW from the bottom up before they felt comfortable for voting for the enterprise bill.


-- To reach Doug Crowl call 871-4206 or e-mail dcrowl@amigo.net

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