Opposition by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to a specialty license plate that would raise money for SEEDS, a program that promotes hunting and fishing to kids, resulted in the SEEDS fundraiser being cut.
Volunteers who have been organizing kids hunts and youth conservation work days through the SEEDS program expressed shock.
GON is still confirming exactly who all was involved in lobbying against the SEEDS license plate, but what has been confirmed is that the DNR leadership, including DNR Commissioner Noel Holcomb, spoke to key legislators to get the SEEDS fundraiser cut from HB 485. None of the other 13 new specialty license plates included in HB 485 were cut.
GON asked to speak to Holcomb, but he was at a conference in Oregon and did not respond.
Beth Brown, DNR’s director of communications, confirmed that Holcomb spoke to legislators against the SEEDS license plate. She said DNR has two concerns with a license plate that would raise money to promote hunting and fishing for kids.
“One is that it was in direct conflict with a major source of funds for existing DNR programs, meaning the Bobwhite Quail Initiative (BQI) and the Nongame program,” Brown said.
DNR has two specialty license plates that raise money for those programs that have been widely supported by sportsmen.
“And also, there was no coordination with DNR on that legislation for a program that was going to be reaching out trying to educate future generations of hunters to encourage their participation,” she said.
Brown said that DNR has opposed any specialty license plate that might split the revenue pie available to DNR’s Nongame and BQI projects through tag sales, including an effort several years ago by the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) to get a fundraising specialty license plate. It is unclear why the other 13 new specialty tags included in HB 485 do not pose a threat to split the pie of DNR’s potential tag sales.
The idea for a specialty tag for SEEDS was first presented to sportsmen in a January survey that offered the opportunity for comment on pros and cons of such a tag. DNR’s action to kill the fundraiser for youth hunting and fishing came as a surprise to GON, who has been in close contact with senior Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) personnel during the legislative session in attempts to monitor and track legislation that might affect sportsmen.
The SEEDS language was cut from HB 485 by the House Rules Committee. The bill, without a fundraising plate for youth hunting and fishing, was expected to be voted on by the House on “crossover day.” Legislators have one day remaining in the session, March 24, for bills to pass from one chamber to the other. Any bill that doesn’t pass a vote by the House or Senate by “crossover day” will not be acted on this year.
Meanwhile, most of the focus during this year’s legislative session has centered around state money — new proposals that would spend money, and a chronic lack of funding for other important areas that directly affect sportsmen.
When Gov. Sonny Perdue gave his State of the State address, he announced plans for two items that would put $63 million in additional state funds into the hands of DNR — $50 million for land preservation and $13 million (plus $6 million the next year) for Go Fish Georgia.
For sportsmen the song never seems to change at the state capitol when our legislators and governor meet to decide how to spend state tax money. Hunting and fishing interests are offered up easily when cuts are needed, despite the fact that sportsmen’s license fees and federal excise taxes have always paid for far more than our share compared to services we receive.
This year, the mantra for the budget blues is PeachCare, a state program that subsidizes healthcare for children whose parents can’t afford insurance — a state program dependent on federal funds. A short-fall in federal funding for PeachCare this year has given a House subcommittee reason to begin slicing.
The latest news is that the House subcommittee working on the budget has slashed Go Fish Georgia to $5 million this year and is allocating only $32 million to land preservation.
The original Go Fish Georgia proposal called for construction of 15 new “mega” ramps that are capable of accommodating large bass tournaments — six to eight launching ramps, parking that can handle large crowds and a design that includes areas for weigh-in stages and spectators.
Now that legislators have proposed cutting the funding for Go Fish Georgia to $5 million, a question that hasn’t been answered is whether that is money above the $3.7 million in federal money already awarded to the state in a settlement over PCP contamination in Lake Hartwell. If it is not, then the House subcommittee is actually only proposing $1.3 million in state funds for Go Fish Georgia this year. Public hearings in the Hartwell area determined overwhelming public support to use the money to build a mega ramp on the lake, construction of which would have likely occurred whether it was part of the Go Fish Georgia program or not.
In general, budget and funding issues have reached a critical stage among the men and women who work in WRD in the Game Management, Fisheries, and Law Enforcement sections. For sportsmen, it is an insult that a department funded almost entirely by user fees — your hunting and fishing licenses and excise taxes on every hunting- and fishing-related item you buy — has seen such a downward spiral in services to sportsmen, personnel numbers, equipment and morale.
Noteworthy at the capitol this legislative session has been the presence of the newly formed Georgia Ranger Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge, whose members are post-certified DNR law-enforcement officers. Twice this session, a large contingent from DNR Law Enforcement has traveled to the capitol seeking help with salary issues that are taking a toll on morale among Georgia’s rangers.
The House of Representatives formed a study committee that spent last summer investigating the salaries and benefits of Georgia’s state law-enforcement agencies. The results of the study committee’s work published last month included a recommendation to immediately fund plans by State Patrol and GBI to fix their salary issues.
For DNR, the study committee recommended solutions that would not be phased-in until 2010. The chairman of the study committee, Rep. Burke Day (R-Tybee Island), had requested information from DNR Commissioner Noel Holcomb for the committee’s efforts to make the case for more state money to remedy their salary issue. In a December 13 letter, Rep. Day told Holcomb, “The study committee’s report will be finalized on Wednesday, December 20. Without your recommendations of pay by rank, tenure, and retirement benefits, we’ll be unable to include your requests to the legislature.”
The DNR Commissioner responded by letter December 18, saying, “I am working closely with the governor’s office regarding pay and recruitment and retention for our law enforcement officers, and have already submitted DNR’s budget to the Board (of Natural Resources) and they have approved it. Having just recently met with the governor regarding DNR’s budget, I feel at this time I am unable to respond to your request for information on the above subject.”
A source with DNR told GON there is no remedy to the salary crisis among our game wardens in that DNR budget.
The report by the House committee later stated, “All agency heads responded to this legislative study committee’s request — except DNR’s Commissioner Noel Holcomb. In a rather terse letter (the December 13 letter), he explained why he refused.”
Meanwhile, sportsmen continue to keep an eye on other proposed laws that could affect hunting, fishing and gun rights.
• SB 273: This proposed law is likely a reaction to several dog-shooting incidents across the state last deer season. The law would remove current language in a law that allows someone to shoot a dog that is chasing a deer.
• HB 466: This bill allows hunting deer over bait for landowners who implement a quality-deer-management program. It creates a $20 permit for quality-deer-management programs on private land with stipulations: a management plan must be approved by a wildlife biologist; all 1 1/2-year-old bucks must be protected from harvest, except it allows for harvest of cull bucks; it specifies minimum and maximum doe harvest; it requires a year-round feeding program of “high-quality protein” feed; it requires hunters to purchase a special stamp, and it also requires a private or commercial shooting preserve license for the landowner. The bill has been assigned to the House Committee on Game, Fish & Parks.
• HB 29: This law would exempt non-residents 65 or older from having to purchase a Georgia license to hunt, fish or trap in the state if they are appropriately licensed in their home state. According to DNR, this change would exempt 5,350 non-resident sportsmen from license requirements and cost at least $224,555 in state revenues and at least $45,000 in federal funds. The bill is still in committee.• HB 143: Still not passed by the House, this NRA-backed law would keep companies from firing employees for having guns in their vehicles. The law proposal came about after employees at some Florida companies were fired when their vehicles were searched and hunting rifles and handguns were found.
• SB 16: This dog-fighting legislation has the smell and taste of animal-rights groups with the inclusion of banning training for dog racing and language that could be open for interpretation that could affect training for hunting dogs. On March 1, the Senate passed substitute language that was improved, but still holds some concerns for sportsmen.
• HB 301: Another proposed law to deal with dog fighting, this House version lacks the animal-rights influence and wording, thus drawing the support of at least one organization that is concerned with the language of SB 16. The Georgia Hunting and Fishing Federation (GHFF) had issued an alert to its members asking them to support HB 301 while opposing SB 16.
• HR 56: This resolution was passed by a House vote of 153 to 0. It urges the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the feasibility of raising the full-pool level of Lake Lanier by two feet to increase the available water supply by 25 billion gallons.
• HB 142: This bill would modify an existing law that protects nongame animals. The current law has a list of exceptions of nongame animals that can be trapped, killed, possessed, etc. The list includes coyotes, armadillos and 11 other species. HB 142 would add garter, corn and king snakes to the list of nongame species that are not protected. King snakes and corn snakes are popular in the pet trade, and the bill is likely a move to make it legal to buy, sell, or possess the snakes; however, it would also make it legal to kill them. The House has not voted on the legislation.
• HB 81: This law creates a $25 annual license for saltwater fishing guides, and it modifies the fee structure of a voluntary captain’s license that covers all of their clients, so the clients don’t have to purchase individual licenses. Clients on saltwater-fishing charters are required to have a regular Georgia fishing license, but many tourists have difficulty getting licenses. Currently, there is a $25 voluntary license a captain can purchase that covers all passengers on his or her charter boat. HB 81 changes the fee structure on this voluntary “customers-are-covered” license to $150 for boats carrying six or fewer customers and $400 for larger boats. The House chamber passed HB 81 by a vote of 158 to 3, and it has moved to the Senate. A Senate committee has already reported favorably on the bill, and it is awaiting a vote by the Senate.
• HB 100: This shrimping legislation repeals the current prohibition of modified cast nets used for netting shrimp in deep water. It would also repeal current language that makes it illegal to carry a food-shrimp cast net and a bait-shrimp cast net at the same time. The House passed the bill, and it has moved to the Senate.