Money grab is an unwelcome diversion

OUTDOORS

March 07, 2004|By CANDUS THOMSON

Feeling a little light, my friends? That's because your elected officials in Annapolis are about to put their hands in both of your pockets.

With seven days to go before Susquehanna Flats opens for striper action and with yellow perch revving their spawning engines, this was going to be an ode to fishing, pure and simple. Nothing would have given me more pleasure. We're all tired of being cooped up, of talking about fishing at swap meets, of looking at pictures of fishing.

It's time to say, "Fish on."

But to ignore the budget shenanigans in the state capital involving money that should be going to anglers and hunters would be like turning up the car radio to hide the clunking sound coming from under the hood.

Here's the deal: Two years ago, the Department of Natural Resources raised the price of hunting licenses about $12 to cover increased operating costs. This year, DNR proposed raising prices of fishing licenses a total of $8 for a freshwater and tidal combo.

That's understandable. The price of everything is going up.

But lawmakers looking to balance the budget, which they must do by law, are talking about diverting $1 million in general fund money from DNR's budget. Their argument is that DNR doesn't need money from state coffers if it's getting a barrel of bucks from the license-buying community.

Elected officials hope you don't notice as they pick your pockets, taking license money from one and tax money from the other. The Artful Dodger would have been envious.

Unfortunately, that $1 million is the lion's share of the money DNR gets from the general revenue stream.

Short of grabbing us by our ankles and shaking us for the loose change in our pockets or wearing a mask and sticking us up at gunpoint, there's very little else the General Assembly can do to show its disdain.

How bad is it?

In 2001, for example, the Wildlife and Heritage Service received $1.3 million in general funds. The next year, the license increase gave lawmakers the excuse to reduce the general fund payout to $700,000. This year, they want the rest - $480,000.

To add insult to injury, they now have lifted the lid on the fisheries service cookie jar and are about to help themselves to $680,000.

The problem with forcing DNR to largely operate on user fees is two-fold. First, with the number of hunters and anglers continuing to decline, the amount of revenue for the department will drop each year, requiring a reduction in services or pushing fees up again and again.

But more importantly, it's unfair to force just two groups to pay for DNR. If lawmakers insist that users of the agency's services pay their own way, they should be consistent.

People who call DNR because their vehicle struck a deer or because a beaver dam is causing flooding on their property or because a bear is wandering around their backyard should have their checkbooks out when biologists arrive to solve the problem.

Horseback riders and birders who use state forest land should have to buy a license to help pay for DNR's land managers.

Communities that rely on tourism dollars generated by fishermen should get a bill from the fisheries folks who ensure the stock remains healthy.

In return, all paying users should insist on "truth in advertising" from state officials. For example, state park visitors are entitled to know why entrance fees increase while the number of rangers has dropped from 218 in 1990 to 146 today.

Try this on for size, picnickers. In 1990, about two dozen rangers patrolled Gunpowder Falls State Park. Today, it's half that number to cover 18,000 acres and to handle some additional duties tacked on since then: 14 miles of the Northern Central Railroad trail, the North Point Visitor Center, the historic village of Jerusalem and the Days Cove Environmental Center.

Why do park service rangers - fully trained law enforcement officers - now find that their daily responsibilities include running the cash register at Deep Creek Lake and mowing the grass and cleaning bathrooms at Greenbrier and Tuckahoe state parks?

DNR officials hope their shell game of combining the Natural Resources Police force (down 35 officers) with the rangers will hide the chronic understaffing problem. But you folks are smarter than that.

Ask why the department dragged its feet on proposing an on-line license bill this year to make Maryland like 40 other states, leaving it up to state Sen. John Astle to be the champion of the consumer.

Now, I know some of you are wondering when I'm going to get off this Annapolis rant and start writing about wetting a line or getting ready for spring turkey season.

Nothing would make me happier. But the truth is there won't be anything worth a damn to write about or do in Maryland's great outdoors if lawmakers keep dipping into our shallow well.

I said I wasn't going to write about fishing? Changed my mind.

That's what happens when 92 young anglers from around the state gather for the Maryland CastingKids competition, sponsored by the state BASS Federation.

Jacob Gregory, 9, of Catonsville and Danny Roselle, 13, of La Plata, won their age groups and will compete in the CastingKids semifinals in Tulsa, Okla., on April 23-25.

The top 10 kids will advance to the national competition, which will be held during the Bassmaster Classic, July 30-Aug. 1, in Charlotte, N.C.

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