Sticker shock as milfoil fee increase wins legislative support

NOTE: You can make your voice heard on this issue by answering the milfoil sticker question in my Sportsmen Say Survey question on my website, www.georgesmithmaine.com. I will alert legislators to your opinion!

Sticker Shock

On Tuesday afternoon the legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee spent more than an hour questioning state officials about their work on invasive plants and fish. Much of that work is funded by a special fee added years ago to the boat registration, the so-called milfoil sticker fee.

milfoil in MaineJohn McPhedran of the Department of Environmental Protection, the very capable leader of that agency’s invasive plant program, and Warden Service Major Chris Currier, along with Bill Swan, Director of Licensing for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, were peppered with questions from committee members. All three did a good job of explaining their programs, revenue, and expenditures.

The bill before the committee, LD 1626 sponsored by Rep. Mike McClellan of Raymond, would raise the milfoil sticker fee by $7 for Mainers and by $15 for nonresidents. This fee is now incorporated into the boat registration fee and must be paid when boats are registered. I posted a column about the bill last week, and you can read that in this news blog if you want more details about the bill and its advocates.

Initially I thought the bill would get little to no support, given the opposition of both the DEP and DIF&W Commissioners – along with the Governor’s stubborn insistence on no tax or fee increases. So I was shocked as the work session discussion indicated a number of committee members might favor an increase in order to expand the DEP’s invasive plan program.

Peter Lowell of the Lakes Environmental Association.

Peter Lowell of the Lakes Environmental Association.

Representative Mike Shaw, House chair of the IFW Committee, at the end of the work session crafted an amended version of the bill – with a lot of guidance from committee members – that would increase the milfoil sticker fee by $5 for both residents and nonresidents, beginning in 2015, and direct all of the money to the DEP for its invasive plan program.

The current sticker fee of $10 is divided between the agencies with the DEP getting 60 percent and DIF&W 40 percent.

The committee voted 7 to 6 to support Shawn’s motion and the fee increase. Representatives Karen Kusiak, Sheryl Briggs, Jeff Evangelos, Tim Marks, and Mike Shaw, and Senators Anne Haskell and David Dutremble, all voted in favor. Representatives Steve Wood, Stan Short, Ellie Espling, Paul Davis and Dale Crafts, and Senator David Burns voted against the amended bill.

During the discussion, Rep. Steve Wood asked a good question: “How much of the money is spent on invasive fish?” DIF&W Deputy Director Andrea Erskine responded that while she thought the agency’s staff was not correctly recording hours spent on invasive fish projects, they were probably spending $20,000 to $25,000 a year on invasive fish.  McPhedran noted that DEP only works on plants and he defers to IFW on invasive fish. “They have tremendous needs,” he said. That was an understatement!

Rep. Ellie Espling offered what I thought was the most insightful comments, saying, “I have an issue with a fee increase. I see a lot of redundancy in the statute between the two agencies, and I think there is a lack of focus and control. I encourage the folks from the lake associations who are here to get more involved. I would like to see the roles of the two agencies examined with a clear understanding of which agency is responsible for what.”

The Rest of the Story

The legislature nearly defeated the original bill, enacted years ago, that created the milfoil sticker and fee. On behalf of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, I lobbied against the bill. We didn’t like it for these reasons:

1)      We didn’t want to make the registration of boats more expensive;

2)      We believed a program to combat invasive plants would benefit all Mainers, not just those with boats, so all Mainers should be asked to fund the program;

3)      We were disappointed in the lack of attention to the horrible problems caused by invasive fish and didn’t believe any of the money from the milfoil sticker would be used to attack those problems.

Time has proven us right on all three.

We had plenty of votes in the House to defeat the proposal, until leaders of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee made a deal with supporters of the bill to vote for the bill in return for directing 40 percent of the milfoil fee revenue to DIF&W to fund 6 warden positions.

That was just enough to allow the bill to win in the House of Representatives, by a single vote.

Ironically, DIF&W informed the committee during the work session this week on the proposed fee hike that the milfoil revenue is currently funding only 2 warden positions.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.