Reimbursement to Fish and Wildlife Agencies for Free and Discounted Licenses

Summary

Revenue from sporting licenses is a crucial element for funding state fish and wildlife agencies’ conservation efforts across the nation. However, well-intentioned programs to offer free and discounted licenses to certain qualified individuals/groups have the potential to reap deteriorative effects on the agencies’ budgets. To prevent the loss of sportsmen-generated dollars for conservation funding, some states have enacted legislation to require reimbursements to the state fish and wildlife agencies from the general funds for any free and discounted licenses.

Introduction

Through the “user pays – public benefits” American System of Conservation Funding (ASCF), sportsmen and women provide, on average, nearly 60% of the funds used by state fish and wildlife agencies to carry out their critical conservation missions. Revenue from sporting licenses is a major source of these funds, which is funneled back into conservation through the state agencies. Most states across the country have developed policies and programs that serve to provide either discounted or free hunting/fishing licenses to seniors, active-duty military, veterans, and disabled persons. In recent years legislatures have considered bills to significantly expand the free licenses they offer to also include first responders, hunter education instructors, and more. While these programs are viewed by some as a great way to reward specific groups of individuals for their services, they also decrease the funds available to wildlife agencies and therefore limit the agencies’ abilities to deliver their conservation services which benefit all fish and wildlife, their habitats, and all people of the states.

Background

The Pittman-Robertson (PR) and Dingell-Johnson (DJ) Acts are two ASCF cornerstones that authorize federal funding for state fish and wildlife agencies to manage and restore wildlife resources. The distribution of these funds is formula-based and dependent on state size and the number of paid hunting and fishing license holders per state. This means that states that distribute free, and in some cases discounted licenses, are losing funds both from the initial revenue of license sales, as well as from funds that would be appropriated under PR and DJ. To compensate for this, some states have enacted legislation that reallocates funds from the state general fund to compensate the state fish and wildlife agency for the lost revenue.

Points of Interest

  • Almost all state fish and wildlife agencies are primarily funded through ASCF.
  • Qualifications for discounted licenses varies from state to state but nearly all (46) offer reduced fees for seniors.
  • Three states (Michigan, New Jersey, and Tennessee) have enacted legislation that reimburses the fish and wildlife agencies for revenue lost from license exemptions/discounts from the state general fund.
  • In 2022, Massachusetts considered stand-alone legislation, as well as a provision within the draft Fiscal Year 2023 Budget, that would reimburse lost license revenue from the general fund.
  • States must receive a net revenue of $2.00 from each license sale to report a certified license holder which qualifies for additional federal funds. On average, each certified hunting license brings the state an additional $26 and each fishing license brings in $10 of federal aid. When license fees are eliminated completely, states lose out on this additional revenue in addition to the loss of the original cost of the license.

Language

The following states have enacted or introduced legislation that would reimburse the costs of lost license sales.

  • Massachusetts Bill S.546: “The inland fisheries and game fund shall be reimbursed annually from the general fund for all loss of revenue for any fishing or hunting license provided at a discount and for any license provided free of charge.”3
  • Michigan MCL 324.43546: “The department shall determine the total fees that would have been collected if those senior citizens had been required to purchase full-price resident hunting and fishing licenses during the preceding license year. From this total, the department shall subtract the fees collected from the sale of senior hunting and fishing licenses during the preceding license year. The difference is the amount that would otherwise be collected…. The legislature shall annually appropriate from the general fund a sum equal to the fees that would otherwise be collected.”
  • New Jersey Title 23, Chapter3-1f: “At the end of each fiscal year, the Director of the Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife shall certify to the Director of the Division of Budget and Accounting in the Department of the Treasury the amount that the "hunters' and anglers' license fund" has been reduced as a result of any license issued without charge pursuant to section 1 of this act. An amount equal to the amount certified shall be appropriated each year from the General Fund to the "hunters' and anglers' license fund" for additional operating costs.”
  • Tennessee Title 70, Chapter 2, § 70-2-104: “The agency shall be reimbursed for lost revenue resulting from the issuance of free or partially discounted combination hunting and fishing licenses created by statute on or after January 1, 2017, in an amount equal to the discounts received.”

Moving Forward

Revenue from hunting and fishing license sales is one of the major funding sources for the agencies that work to ensure the health of our fish and wildlife populations and their habitats. When giving out free and discounted licenses states limit the ability of the fish and wildlife agencies to fund their conservation work, which benefits all citizens. To protect the integrity of sportsmen-generated dollars through the American System of Conservation Funding, legislators are encouraged to work towards providing statutory protections against lost conservation dollars by passing legislation to require the agency be reimbursed from the general fund for any free license the legislature decides to implement.

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Studies conducted at both the state and federal level have found that the number of hunters and trappers have been on a generally declining trend over the past several decades. To increase recruitment, retention, and reactivation (R3) of hunters and trappers, which initiative do you think would have the greatest impact?

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