MDC Raising Permit Fees

A million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. So, let’s talk about real money. Let’s talk about the cost of conservation, and let’s talk about inflation. But first, let’s take note of the reason for this discussion. 

Beginning July 4th through August 2, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) would like to hear from you about their proposal to modestly raise permit prices gradually over the next 10 years.

A long time coming and way overdue, the largest number of people affected will be those who purchase permits for hunting and fishing, trapping, annual trout permits, and daily trout tags. Generally, Missouri has about 1 million anglers, over 500,000 hunters, and several thousand trappers, who purchase about 2.6 million permits each year. After this, there’s a litany of lesser permits, mostly commercial, which will also be subject to increases.

Now the need for an increase is important for a couple of reasons. First, Missouri permits are way undervalued. Compared to other states, permit prices are flat out cheap and have remained that way for a very long time, a benefit enjoyed largely because of the dedicated conservation sales tax. However, it seems pretty reasonable to me that permits prices, undervalued and mostly untouched for 20 years, should be nudged upward a bit.

Secondly, even for an agency as well funded as MDC, there is a need for additional revenue to help offset the rising cost of everything. The amount of additional money generated by this increase is projected to be about $800,000 in 2024, and about $2 million per year thereafter for the foreseeable future. Not big money in the scheme of things, but the cost of doing the work of conservation, maintaining facilities, equipment, energy, etc. continues to go up in leaps and bounds, so every little bit helps.

As I understand the proposal on the table, 2023 permit prices will be the benchmark, and using the Consumer Price Index (CPI), prices will be gradually raised over the next 10 years, effectively synchronizing the cost of permits with overall consumer prices. The nice part of this strategy is the annual increases will be very small. And for those permits subdivided by resident versus non-resident, the increase for non-residents will be about 25 percent greater. 

Now for some, this might be a complicated and awkward discussion so let’s cut to the chase and address the elephant in the room. Let’s talk about real money and why a well-funded agency needs more. 

So, where does MDC’s money come from? The biggest source is the dedicated conservation sales tax, a remarkable funding model based on the idea that all Missourians should contribute because the work of conservation benefits everyone in some way or another. If we simplify, for every $8 spent on taxable items, one penny goes to conservation, or another way to look at it is each person in Missouri contributes about $24 per year. In 2022, the conservation sales tax generated about $148 million.

The next largest source of revenue is permits ($41 million) followed by federal reimbursement ($35 million). Worth mentioning here is most federal reimbursements are tied to hunting and fishing permits through the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, another remarkable, albeit national funding model. Under this program, federal excise tax money is returned to the state by a formula, and the state in effect uses its permit money as match for receiving its fair share. Finally, MDC gets another $13 million from sales, rentals, and miscellaneous sources.

Broadly, where does the money go? For 2022 the breakdown looks like this: Habitat Management: $44 million; Conservation Business Services: $43 million; Fish and Wildlife Management: $41 million; Recreation Management: $23 million; Education and Communication: $23 million; and Capital Improvements: $12 million. A detailed look at expenses and needs can be seen in MDC’s online story about Permit Price Adjustments.

One last important tidbit in the real money discussion. The total operating budget for the State of Missouri in fiscal year 2022 was over $34 BILLION. By comparison, MDC’s budget is a tiny part (less than 1 percent) of the total state budget, and because conservation funds are earmarked, the MDC receives no general revenue, meaning it does not compete for funds with other important government programs and services.

Now that you understand the elephant, allow me to poke the hungry bear. The bear’s name is infrastructure – buildings, hatcheries, boat accesses, roads, trails, parking lots, levees, wetland pumps, recreational facilities, shooting ranges, nature centers, etc. Fact is, once these things are built, they gobble money for maintenance and renovation almost in perpetuity, and any discussion of eliminating these invariably makes the public unhappy. People really like all these benefits and don’t want to see them lost or diminished in any way. 

This fact is not lost on MDC and over the past few years, the Department has developed a sophisticated system for managing and prioritizing its infrastructure needs to keep the hungry bear from eating itself out of house and home. In 2019, MDC completed a detailed inventory of all its infrastructure and implemented a method to monitor condition, as well as prioritize upkeep and renovation needs. In addition, 75 percent of all construction expenditures are directed to taking care of existing facilities up to standards.

So, this brings us back to permit prices. MDC delivers some of the best conservation programs and services in the nation, and they have done it very conservatively over many decades. Their strategy of raising prices gradually yet keeping them low is a good one and worthy of support. And elephants and bears be damned, it’s about time.

The Conservation Commission gave initial approval to the proposed permit price adjustments at its May 19 meeting. Public Comments about its proposed permit price adjustments and comments received will be included in the final Orders of Rulemaking and published in the Missouri Register.

by Dan Zekor

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