, Newburyport, MA

December 11, 2013

Editorial: NH canoe tax is a desparate money grab

Newburyport Daily News

---- — It’s no secret that the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is strapped for cash.

How could it be when the department has been shouting the news from the rooftops for years?

Traditionally, the agency has been self-sustaining, paying expenses almost entirely out of the fees charged for hunting, fishing and other licenses and permits.

But the number of people buying hunting and fishing licenses has been declining for a decade, reflecting a nationwide change in recreation habits. But as fewer people take up the gun and the rod, who’s going to pay for Fish and Game services, not to mention the salaries and benefits of agency employees?

The answer, says Fish and Game, is to reach into the pockets of people who don’t hunt or fish.

Or, as the agency euphemistically puts it on its website, “to create a means for the broader public constituencies that benefit from the Department’s services to help contribute to its operations.”

By “contribute,” of course, they really mean “be forced to pay.”

Who might those “broader public constituencies” be? Oh, hikers, birders and other “wildlife watchers” — in fact, everyone who lives in or visits New Hampshire.

But the first target is boaters.

Operators of motor-powered boats already pay a fee for the privilege when they register their craft.

But like most states, including its revenue-ravenous neighbor, Massachusetts, New Hampshire does not charge for non-motorized vessels: canoes, kayaks, rowboats, sailboats, paddle boards, what-have-you.

A commission formed to find ways to improve the “sustainability” of Fish and Game recommended that New Hampshire start charging.

Now the chairman of the commission, state Sen. Robert Odell, R-Lempster, has filed legislation that would require owners to pay an annual fee of $10 for every dinghy, dory, punt, pram, shell, skiff or other example of the non-motorized fleet.

Other members of the sustainability panel say the fee is necessary.

“It would be catastrophic if we don’t find an additional source of funding,” said the chairman of the Fish and Game Commission, Thomas Hubert.

He said small-boaters “will be willing to contribute” once “they learn the big picture.” Not that they would have much choice, except to avoid New Hampshire waterways.

State Rep. David Kidder, R-New London, another panel member, said $10 a year is a small price to pay to enjoy the privilege of canoeing or kayaking.

Paddling your own canoe is now a privilege?

Not surprisingly, sportsmen are not thrilled by the fee — or tax, as they call it.

“I’m just shocked that the state wants to add another tax,” said Don Hathaway, treasurer of the Plaistow Fish and Game Club. “To me, it’s another tax — that’s all it is.”

“The government is trying to find any way it can to collect more money,” Pelham Fish and Game Club president Mitch Kopacz said.

We agree.

It makes sense for hunters and fishermen to help pay for the services that directly benefit them: game management and fish stocking programs, for example.

The agency claims that everyone who enjoys the great outdoors benefits. Should hikers pay a fee for their hiking shoes? What about those wildlife watchers? A fee on their birder binoculars?

The other issue is that Fish and Game has done next to nothing to explore alternatives. The agency says it has cut expenses as much as it can; they all say that. It is reluctant to raise fees — and hasn’t done so in 10 years — because it fears that would drive away even more hunters and fishermen, though the sustainability commission is recommending the Legislature consider raising the fees.

The canoe tax is nothing more than an attempt to charge people for Fish and Game services that do not directly benefit them in order to balance the books without making hard decisions on spending. If it succeeds in roping in boaters, the agency will continue seeking to expand the pool of payers.

The New Hampshire Legislature should scuttle the canoe fee.