In a recent action, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (don’t ask us about the committee title, we’re still trying to figure out what Ways and Means means) approved S. 2156 which shifts the authority over the price of federal ducks stamps from Congress to the Secretary of the Department of Interior. In the case of the duck stamp, the current $15 fee has been unchanged since 1991. According to our U.S. CPI calculations, it now takes $25.27 to purchase the same “basket of goods” as you could for $15 in 1991. This inflation-adjusted amount is only slightly better for Michigan whose last license fee increase was in 1996. In the Michigan example, it now takes $21.94 to buy what $15 could in 1996 which represents a 46.3% erosion of purchasing power over that 16-year period.
Even as contentious as Washington D.C. is these days, enough reasonable legislators seem to exist to recognize that given the current political realities, waiting for a good time to approve such a fee increase may be akin to being a Chicago Cubs fan. The additional benefit of this transfer of authority, or a similar measure, is that it avoids politicians being branded as having approved a “tax increase.”
It is worth noting that the federal proposal does not solely empower the Secretary of the Interior to make this decision. This process also requires consultation and approval of the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission, which includes the EPA Chief, secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture and two members each from both the House and Senate before a duck stamp fee could be changed.
Since it seems unlikely that Michigan will soon be returning to a time when natural resource management is devoid of politics, there may be a way use the current system to our collective advantage. Given the fact that the Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is a gubernatorial hire, and the members of the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) are similarly appointed, it would appear that even if indirect, sufficient duly elected public oversight is already in place to make such decisions.
If something similar to a process were to be created whereby the Director of the DNR could make a license fee recommendation to a committee comprised of the NRC and the Chairs and Vice-Chairs of both the State House and Senate Natural Resources Committees who could ultimately approve, amend, or reject such a proposal, this would seem to be a far better alternative than being solely dependent on the actions, or inaction, of the State Legislature. This combination of agency professionals, public appointees, and elected officials would also be in a better position to make informed judgements about the purpose and use of these funds than is the general membership of the State House and Senate.
Obviously, such a radical alternative is unlikely to be a solution to the current needs of those charged with fisheries and wildlife management here in Michigan. We are merely suggesting that instead of having the inevitable and irregular debates about the merits and amount of future license fee adjustments, now would seem to be great time to have the alternative debate about who should have the authority to make those decisions. This is one idea that we would like to see find a bipartisan home.
We know and we can already hear you say it… “that will happen when feral swine fly.”