Columns » John Brummett

Halve the conservation tax

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It appears that the state Game and Fish Commission may no longer need its near-half of that one-eighth-of-a-cent state sales tax for conservation. That's the tax that voters so obligingly and responsibly approved in a constitutional amendment in 1996 to help this purportedly distressed wildlife management agency.

Twelve years later, Game and Fish has plenty of new money and the prospect of much more. The agency stands to reap a tax-transcendent bonanza from leases and royalties on natural gas drilling in its wildlife refuges. It has further turned out that the commission, by leasing these designated wildlife preserves for the easy money of natural gas drilling, has indicated its interest in prostituting, rather than conserving, our most naturally pure land. Why does Game and Fish need tax money for conservation when it has lots of money otherwise and, anyhow, doesn't seem to wish to conserve?

Some people say that Game and Fish ought to share this gas manna, though not with the taxpayers, of course. The idea is to share with other tax receivers feeding at the public trough. After all, these are public lands, not an agency's private property. After all, the up-front gas lease bonus to Game and Fish is $29.5 million and the royalty rate after that could well produce a revenue stream exceeding that annually. After all, this is a windfall that could not have been envisioned in 1996 when we voted to send more than $20 million a year to the commission from its 45 percent dedication from this one-eighth-of-a-cent conservation tax.

But Game and Fish officials say that, darn the luck, it looks as though they may have no choice other than to keep all the money for themselves. There's that constitutional amendment from the 1940s that makes Game and Fish independent, thus in charge of its own business. There are federal regulations that seem to say that, when federal grants are used for purchase of lands for preservation, any proceeds emanating from activities on those lands must be used exclusively for preservation, presumably by the state agency supposedly dedicated to preservation, even if, as in our case, the agency, in turns out, isn't.

Still, a few legislators and state government insiders are wondering what they might be able to do to spread this money around — to themselves, for example, to send back home or to favored projects in the form of ever-popular pork-barrel spending. Term-limited and anemic though they be, legislators nonetheless possess viable options.

The exclusive constitutional power to appropriate money is a mighty one. Game and Fish can be as independent as it wants, but it won't be doing much with that independence if the legislature doesn't approve an appropriation that authorizes spending.

There's a ready alternative that, while less than zero-sum, is not without a certain symmetry. It was the legislature that referred to the voters the constitutional amendment in 1996 setting the one-eighth-of-a-penny sales tax for conservation and giving nearly half to Game and Fish and nearly half to Parks and Tourism. So the legislature could refer another amendment to the people. This one could repeal that one. It could invite the voters to cut the tax in half — to one-sixteenth of a penny — and dedicate all the money to parks, except a small part going to heritage programs, but none to Game and Fish.

Actually, we'd have to cut the tax by 45 percent, not altogether in half, to protect all current recipients other than Game and Fish. I'm just doing the easier math at this point, simply to get the ball rolling.

Taxpayers would get a break. Parks would be protected. Game and Fish would come out ahead anyway, since these gas leases will produce more than the conservation tax. Maybe best of all, we wouldn't get taxed for the supposed purpose of Game and Fish's doing something that, in truth, it does the very opposite of.

 

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