Bill mash-up could increase pay for block management landowners

Even the best government programs can’t get far if they don’t have their own funding.

That’s the hurdle Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, has run into almost every session when he’s tried to get more money for the landowners who participate in Montana’s block management program.

His most recent attempt, House Bill 164, would pull more money out of the new base hunting license. Instead of just $2 out of every $10 resident base license, $5 would go toward block management. Flynn, chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife & Parks committee, presented his bill in committee Thursday.

“I think this is about my 164th attempt on block management,” Flynn said. “Landowners don’t ask for that much. Maybe just to stay even. But in all the years that I have come in and had these bills, has the department done anything to increase the per-hunter day? They talk about it. But we don’t do it.”

The problem for Flynn’s bills has often been that they try to pull money out of other programs that don’t have much money themselves.

In this case, the base-hunting license was created by the 2015 Legislature to provide enough money for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to stay solvent throughout its four-year budget period. If more money – in this case, $3 more per license - is pulled away from the general license fund, other FWP programs would be robbed of more than $540,000 per year, according to the HB 164 fiscal note.

 “The revenue generated by House Bill 140 (in 2015) was intended to carry the department through a four-year cycle. We’d rather not be back before the Legislature requesting a fee increase before that time,” said FWP Administration Chief Dustin Temple. “As we try to be responsible managers of the public’s resources, it’s not prudent to start pulling at the threads of that fabric before it’s complete.”

Similarly, in 2013, Flynn tried to siphon up to a quarter of the money away from the Habitat Montana program. But hunters didn’t like Habitat Montana losing money because it buys land or conservation easements for wildlife habitat and needs bigger chunks of money as a result.

Hunters support giving landowners fair reimbursement for the wear-and-tear that hunting can cause to their land, as evidenced by the fact that no one rose Thursday to oppose HB 97, which would increase the cap on the yearly total paid to block management landowners to $15,000 from $12,000.

But both FWP and Montana Wildlife Federation representatives reluctantly rose to oppose Flynn’s bill.

“I’ve never seen anyone work so hard as Chairman Flynn to find a solution to better access and better sportsman-landowner relations. Unfortunately, I don’t think this gets us there,” said MWF spokesman Ben Lamb. “As I heard one legislator put the other day, ‘Whose ox is going to get gored here?’”

In 2015, Flynn had a better idea with its own source of money: make hunters who want to use block management buy a $25 stamp and then get rid of the smaller access fee paid by all hunters. Chris Marchion of the Anaconda Sportsmens Club was the only opponent and that was because he favored a similar bill that would increase the hunter access fees. That bill moved on and Flynn’s bill never made it out of committee.

Flynn’s bill would also increase nonresident base license fees by $5, all of which would go to block management. Because of the cost increase, FWP would lose no revenue. So that may be part of an amended bill that may come before the committee.

During the discussion on HB 97 raising the block management cap, Flynn asked the sponsor, Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, if HB 97 could be changed to increase the per-hunter day payment instead of the cap. Flynn’s reasoning was that only about 70 landowners have large enough properties to max out on the payment so they’d be the only ones to benefit from an increase cap. But every landowner could get a little more if the per-hunter-day amount was increased to more than $11 or so.

Loge said he wasn’t opposed to the amendment but didn’t know where the money would come from.

FWP supported increasing the cap because it could pay about 70 landowners $3,000 more. Nonresident-license sales have recovered from the recession and the hunter access program has more money, said FWP Administrator Ken McDonald. But there might not be enough to pay higher rates to all the 1,100 landowners in the block management program.

But Flynn might be able to ensure a higher per-hunter-day rate if he takes only the part of his bill that increases the cost of nonresident base licenses by $5 for the block management program. Jeanne Johnson, spokeswoman for the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, said MOGA supported increasing the nonresident fee.

“We support block management. If it takes a little more from the nonresident community, we support that as well,” Johnson said.