For the first time in 18 years, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is proposing restructuring hunting and fishing license fees — a move that could generate $10.4 million in annual revenue for the agency if the state Legislature approves the plan during its regular session slated to begin March 12.

The Department, which does not receive any state general fund money but is heavily dependent on oil and gas mineral revenues and user fees to operate, has seen its expenses exceed revenues for about the last three years — and that pattern is projected to continue through at least 2020.

“Since 2015-16, expenditures have evened up with revenues, and since then you’re looking at deficit spending, which is not a sustainable way for you to operate your checkbook — or for us to operate this agency,” said Cole Garrett, LDWF’s executive counsel, in a presentation of the plan to Louisiana Sportsman Friday in the department’s Baton Rouge headquarters. “We don’t want to be in the position our Legislature finds itself in — which is trying to plug a hole — and we definitely don’t want to be reliant as a state general fund agency. 

“We’re trying to act now before it becomes a problem so we can continue to do the programs and operations we need to .… We are heavily dependent on mineral revenue, so when you see that sharp decline in the last couple of years — even though it’s kind of leveled out as of late, it’s not what you want to rely on for day-to-day programatic operations.”

The three-pronged approach would streamline the number of hunting and fishing licenses offered from 117 to 30 and bring the department’s fee structure in line with other Gulf states, focus on internal steps to save money and also capitalize on available federal dollars Louisiana is currently missing out on based on the number of certified hunters and anglers living here.

“Last year every certified fisherman was worth $14 dollars in federal money, and every certified hunter was worth $35 in federal money,” Garrett explained. “But to get those people certified under the current guidelines, you have to show you’re earning a dollar in revenue after you take out your administrative costs. 

“In our current structure, there are plenty of licenses that are either free or cost $2.50 — so we cannot show that dollar of revenue, so we are unable to draw that match money down.”

Projections indicate adding 30,000 new certified hunters and 15,000 new certified fishermen would result in approximately $1.35 million dollars in federal matching money annually for the department.

LDWF Secretary Jack Montoucet said steps are being taken now to cut costs internally, like reviewing contracts and leases statewide and not filling all open positions, and undersecretary Bryan McClinton with the Office of Management and Finance said more than $5 million dollars in expenses already had been scrubbed from the 2019 budget.

“I can tell you in my short tenure here the whole staff has come together and we’ve looked at making cuts and redoing some things in the department that will save money,” Montoucet said. “We’re not only asking to readjust the license fees, but we’re doing our homework cleaning up our house to make sure the way we spend our money is wise.”

One thing noticeably absent in the proposal is an increase of any kind for license fees paid by the state’s commercial fishermen. But Montoucet, who also attended Friday’s meeting, said that would be proposed to the Legislature during their fiscal session in 2019.

“This is the first phase of our plan. Commercial will be addressed next year,” Montoucet said. “I didn’t want to eat the elephant all in one bite. We’re trying to mesh them together. The changes we’re going to make with commercial — they’re going to have to carry their load that will be determined pretty much on the same scale as this. So we’re looking at that, too. 

“I didn’t want to confuse the whole thing and get everybody in an uproar. We’re going to take one step at a time. We’ll do this one, then we’ll do the next one — commercial  — and there’s only going to be a 6-month time lag when both would become effective.”

If approved by the Legislature, any fee increases would go into effect for recreational anglers and hunters on July 1, 2019, and then on Jan. 1, 2020 for commercial fishermen, Montoucet said. 

The proposal also gives the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission authority to review the fee structure every four years, and make adjustments to the costs based on the inflation rates during that period. If cumulative adjustments ever approach 50 percent of the original cost (a $20 dollar license costing $30, for example), the Commission would have to go back to the Legislature for authority to raise the rates higher.

Here are details on the nuts and bolts of potential license fee increases. The way prices have been set, some hunters and fishermen might actually see a reduction in the fees they pay the department.

Fishing

The fee for hook and line (cane pole) fishing would move from $2.50 to $5. The basic fishing license would move from $9.50 to $13.50, and include a host of other gear licenses that are currently sold separately. The saltwater fishing license fee would remain at $13, and also include shrimp trawl and oyster tong privileges. Of that fee, $9.50 would continue to go to the LA Creel program. A new standalone crab license would be required for $5 and would cover those using traps or fishing on the side of the road.

“That $5 is the minimum price we can charge under federal regulations and still get the benefit of drawing the tax dollar allocation back to the state,” Garrett said. “It’s not ever popular to charge somebody for something they were doing for free before, but we think it’s the responsible thing to do. They’re utilizing the resource, and could get up to 12 dozen crabs a day recreationally — and we have to manage that species recreationally and commercially.”

Hunting

The basic hunting license would move from $15 to $20. A $20 deer hunting license (including archery and primitive weapons) would replace the current resident big game license that currently sells for $14. A  waterfowl license would go from $5.50 to $10, with $7.50 of that fee going to the state's waterfowl program. A turkey license would sell for $20 and would be required in addition to the basic hunting license, with $7.50 of the new license fee going to the turkey program. 

“I want to point out the increase for the basic licenses is about 30 percent, which is 6 percent below what inflation has been over the (18-year) period,” Garrett said. “We were very cautious about trying to raise revenue on the backs of our users more than was absolutely necessary, and we wanted to stay below inflation, and that’s what we’ve done.”

To that end, the price of the all-inclusive Sportsman’s Paradise license actually dropped from $100 to $90.

Youth hunting fee

One major change is a $5 youth hunting license, which has no minimum age and would be required only for deer and turkey. This is one area where the department hopes to certify more hunters to obtain those federal matching funds. 

“Right now, 16 years and younger currently do not need a license to recreate at all. In the spirit of trying to maximize the number of certified hunters, we’ve looked at what other states have done … and it’s only for people who would need a deer tag or a turkey tag, and it would also serve to get them their fee to apply for any lottery hunt on a WMA,” Garrett said. “Those are the only youths that would need to have a license. If you’re going dove hunting, rabbit hunting or duck hunting, you would not need a license. It’s only if you come to us for a tag.”

Senior fees

Another aspect of the new plan is that it would raise the senior discount age from 60 to 65. Currently, senior residents age 60 and up get a combo fish/hunt license for just $5. 

Under the new proposal, seniors 65 and up would get a 50 percent discount and pay $6.75 for a basic fishing license, $6.50 for a saltwater license and $2.50 for a crabbing license. Additionally, 65-plus seniors would pay half price for hunting privileges, meaning $10 for basic hunting, $10 for deer, $5 for waterfowl and $10 for turkey.

“If you turn 60 before the year 2000, it’s still going to be free. That’s going to stay the same,” Garrett said. “We’re proposing if you turn 60 as of the date of this bill becoming law — whatever it might be — you would still be eligible for your $5 hunt/fish combo. You would be grandfathered in.

“Starting in 2024, anybody who turns 65 thereafter, they would be eligible for the half price things.”

In relation to how much some seniors hunt and fish, the rate they were paying wasn’t in line, Garrett said.

“These guys are retired for the most part, and they have the opportunity to go out and utilize the resource. We understand they might be on a fixed income — that’s why they get the half price discount,” he said. “But we do recognize they are heavy users of the resource, and the ‘$5 everything license’ seemed incongruent with what their consumption rates were.”

Non-resident fees

Fees for non-resident hunters and anglers were raised to be more in line with other Gulf states. A basic fishing license would cost a non-resident $54, $52 for a non-resident saltwater license and $20 for a non-resident crabbing license. The non-resident basic hunting license would be $200, and non-resident licenses for waterfowl, deer and turkey would be $100 each. Five-day non-resident packages are also available.

“What our fishermen and hunters pay to go to Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi is completely out of whack to what their residents pay to come here,” Montoucet said. “ We’ve got way better fishing and hunting here than you do in Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas, and they’re coming here and virtually benefitting at our expense. 

“What we’ve done is adjusted those to reflect what they charge our people. I think that’s a fair thing - it’s reciprocal.”

Legislation

The bill, which has not officially been filed yet, will be handled next month in the House by Rep. Jerome Zeringue, a Republican representing District 52 in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. A Senate sponsor has not yet been named.

Conclusion

With the state facing a looming fiscal cliff now, Garrett acknowledged it may not be the best time to ask to increase hunting and fishing license fees.

“We understand it’s not the year. It’s never the right time,” he said. “We understand they’re working on a billion dollar budget hole down there, and it may not be popular for us to come and say, ‘Hey, three or four years from now we might be in trouble.’ 

“But we think it’s the responsible thing to do.”