A few constituents have asked why I sponsored LD 563, “Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Use a Portion of the Sales and Use Tax for the Protection of Maine’s Fish and Wildlife.”

In our deliberations, it is easy to focus on the issues that divide us. One issue, love of our environment and all the creatures that call our woods, waters and skies home, is not one of them. Without question, Maine’s clean water, undeveloped areas, wildlife and scenic beauty are important parts of our history, culture and hopefully, our future.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife touches almost all natural resources that Maine people hold dear. Recognizing the value of this tiny department, legislative stewards proposed, and Maine citizens ratified, a constitutional amendment that placed special protections on the revenue raised by sportsmen to ensure that all money raised by license fees would be spent on programs within the department and benefited sportsmen.

Unfortunately, these visionary thinkers could not foresee the destructive budget process that would evolve from their well-intentioned work. As predictable as the change of seasons, the small portion of unprotected general fund money the department receives annually is slashed and sportsmen face two choices: Cut programs or increase fees to maintain programs, such as endangered species protection and search and rescue. We know these vital programs will never be eliminated or cut; they are too important. Past administrations have figured this it out and each budget cycle, more and more General Fund spending responsibility is shifted to license fees paid by sportsmen.

This clever sidestep around the intent of the constitutional amendment has become the department’s and Mainers’ Achilles heel. Inland Fisheries and Wildlife spends 75,000 hours on programs serving the general public for which they receive virtually no general fund support.

A statute passed during Governor Angus King’s administration stated it was the intent of the Legislature and the Governor to cover the 18.5 percent general fund spending within the IF&W budget unrelated to sportsmen. The ink on this new law wasn’t even dry when the Legislature ignored it. Further, budget cutting measures have riddled this department. Sportsmen are conservationists, but expecting their license fees to indefinitely fund programs of the general fund is unsustainable and in time will lead to license fees only affordable to the affluent. Activities like hunting and fishing that were once important elements of this state’s heritage and culture will be for many, financially, out of reach.

This is where only the Constitution can resolve this issue. Decades have passed with legislators ignoring this funding problem and wildlife management has suffered. It is no coincidence that Maine’s deer herd has collapsed.

Unlike England, when this nation was founded, it was established in Constitutional law that wild natural resources belong to all of us. Deer in our woods are not reserved for the king. Unfortunately, for our state’s poorest citizens, unaffordable license fees are as much an obstacle to participation in consumptive activities like hunting and fishing, as the King’s law. If this issue remains unresolved, there will soon be a day when only the well-to-do can afford the department’s licenses.

There is another sinister way in which Maine people lose their rights. In the absence of proper funding or the will to cut essential programs, legislators and committees of IF&W and the Department of Marine Resources continue to propose ways to raise money. To be honest, I am embarrassed that we have to create and rationalize new schemes to generate money. Proposals include outdoor access cards, new registrations, expanded lotteries, registering canoes and kayaks, saltwater fishing licenses, and the list goes on. Those proposals were widely opposed by the public but many were passed and the result: One less right to freely use Maine resources.

LD 563 will end this destructive yearly process and commit a small portion of the sales and use tax, approximately $10 million per year, to pay for general fund programs of this department and DMR’s Sea Run Fisheries program. Some might argue this money should remain in the general fund. I would argue that this money is simply the money sportsmen pay in license fees to subsidize programs for all Maine people. Arkansas, Missouri and Minnesota have adopted constitutional amendments to dedicate a portion of their sales and use tax for their inland fisheries and wildlife agencies. These states have recognized that investment in natural resource management is an important piece of their future economy and prized rural lifestyle.

As president of a fish and game club, I have helped organize many youth fishing events and other outdoor activities that teach children how to share our natural resources in a sustainable way. Many of the children who participate are poor and without means. It is for them and future generations that I introduced this bill.

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, a member of the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, represents Senate District 20, which includes most communities in Lincoln County as well as the communities of Friendship, Washington and Windsor.