Any credibility the Department of Natural Resources has with Michigan sportsmen is vanishing quicker than a whitetail deer spooked by a noisy hunter. It seems incredible that the agency has suddenly discovered a $10 million balance in its Game and Fish Fund when the agency has been threatening to lay off 79 employees and close some wildlife areas to hunting ostensibly due to a lack of funds. On Dec. 11, DNR Director Rebecca Humphries explained to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural Resources that the unexpected windfall is due to an increase in license sales, operational changes and good returns on investments. It seems hard to believe that any of these reasons should come as a surprise as they should routinely be tracked by DNR fiscal managers. This sudden revelation by the DNR is disturbingly similar to the announcement by three state agencies last year that they violated the state constitution by overspending their legislatively authorized appropriations.
DNR officials have been claiming for the past year that a large increase in hunting and fishing license fees was necessary to keep the agency fiscally solvent. However, the Legislature was less than enthusiastic about approving a substantial increase on the backs of sportsmen in the state, many of whom are feeling the effects of Michigan’s sour economy. It was reported in the Michigan Information & Research Service’s Capitol Capsule that Rep. Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch, had reached a deal to use $5 million from the Michigan Business Tax to shore up the fund. I am sure that announcement provided holiday cheer to many Michigan businesses and residents already dealing with a nearly $1.4 billion tax hike approved in October to solve Lansing’s overspending crisis.
Legislators should demand that the management of DNR fiscal assets be open to public scrutiny. It appears that the Natural Resources Commission, largely appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, is not asking tough questions nor holding DNR officials accountable. A thorough review needs to be conducted of all the DNR programs that receive money from the Game and Fish Fund. The DNR should not count on significant revenue from fee increases to sustain its programs. For example, it makes little sense to have programs that encourage more people to take up hunting and fishing when the administration of those programs requires an increase in license fees — which results in fewer people purchasing licenses.
It would appear that there is serious incompetence — or worse, deceit — at work in the way the DNR is dealing with the Game and Fish Fund. Michigan sportsmen and taxpayers deserve better.
Russ Harding is director of the Property Rights Network for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and education institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.