By Doug Ireland
---- — Dropping a canoe or kayak in New Hampshire waters may soon come at a cost.
It could also become a little more expensive to use a rowboat, sailboat or any other “non-motorized” vessel under a bill being proposed in the Legislature.
Sen. Robert Odell, R-Lempster, is sponsoring legislation that would require owners of these watercraft to pay a $10 annual fee to the state. They would be issued a special decal. Proceeds would help fund the financially strapped Fish and Game Department, which is facing a $3 million deficit.
Lempster is the chairman of a commission charged with studying how to keep Fish and Game operating through the creation of additional revenue sources. Until this year, the department was funded solely through fees from hunting and fishing licenses.
The nine-member commission concluded in its report last month that the $10 fee and other measures would help keep the floundering state agency afloat. Other recommendations include increasing licensing fees and raising the age requirement for receiving free lifetime resident licenses.
“It would be catastrophic if we don’t find an additional source of funding,” said Thomas Hubert, chairman of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Commission and a member of the study panel.
Hubert and another panel member, Rep. David Kidder, R-New London, said $10 a year is a small price to pay to enjoy the privilege of canoeing, kayaking or boating in New Hampshire. Lempster could not be reached for comment.
“We have to do something to make (the department) more viable,” Kidder said. “We are trying to do this in a relatively painless way.”
He said the department’s responsibilities have increased over the years and hunting and fishing license fees are no longer enough to fund expenses for something such as search-and-rescue operations.
That’s why the Legislature appropriated $1.6 million for the Fish and Game Department in the two-year state budget passed in June. The department will receive approximately $700,000 in fiscal 2014 and roughly $900,000 in fiscal 2015.
It was the first time the Legislature set aside money for the self-funded agency.
Hubert said licensing fees generate nearly $30 million in annual revenue. He also said people who hunt and fish in New Hampshire boost the state’s economy by about $560 million each year.
Hubert and Kidder admit it would be difficult to enforce the fee requirement. It’s hoped people would pay the fee voluntarily once they know it funds an important cause.
“Certainly, some people are going to be upset about it, but other people are going to say, ‘Glad to do it,’” Kidder said.
“We hope when they learn the big picture, they will be willing to contribute,” he said. “I do anticipate some pushback. No one wants to pay a fee today for something that was free yesterday.”
Officials from some Southern New Hampshire hunting and fishing clubs say the fee is equivalent to paying a tax in a state that prides itself for not having a sales or income tax.
“I’m just shocked that the state wants to add another tax,” said Don Hathaway, treasurer of the Plaistow Fish and Game Club. “To me, it’s another tax — that’s all it is.”
Hathaway and Pelham Fish and Game Club president Mitch Kopacz said hunters and anglers are already paying for the right to enjoy their sport through annual licensing fees.
“The government is trying to find any way it can to collect more money,” Kopacz said. “If I have already paid a fee to the state, I shouldn’t have to pay an additional fee.”
Rep. James Webb, R-Derry, a member of the House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee, is also critical of the fee. He’s afraid it would hurt the state’s tourism industry.
“A fee is a tax — it’s another move to a tax,” he said. “You are going to drive people right out of the state. We rely on the tourism industry.”