Folk singer Woody Guthrie crooned that “this land is your land, this land is my land” — what he forgot to tell us was that it was going to cost us to enjoy it.
In Monday’s Tribune, Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services reported that Arizona’s Land Department is hiking the fees to go hiking — or camping or to watch birds or ride horses — on state-owned land from $15 a year to $50 a year (fees for family passes go from $20 to $75). Land Department officials need to offset the $3.1 million that the Legislature cut from their budget to help reduce the state’s ocean of red ink; those same lawmakers gave the department the OK to increase fees to help shore up its budget.
Arizona Farm Bureau President Kevin Rogers warned us of this ploy in his Aug. 17 commentary (“We must keep tabs on lawmakers’ budget trickery,” Opinion 2). He wrote:
“The Arizona Legislature must have a two-thirds vote to raise your taxes. However, the Legislature and the governor have found a stealth way around this. They cut certain budgets, but then granted unlimited fee (tax) authority to several agencies.”
When is a “balanced budget” not in balance? When state residents are forced to provide the needed balance with back-door tactics such as the Land Department’s gouging.
What makes the recreational land use fee increase even more offensive is the inequitable way it is being applied. As Fischer reported, hikers, campers and birders must cough up more cash, but people who are “actively hunting or fishing” on state lands need only pay the already-imposed state licensing fees of $32.25 for hunting and $23.50 for fishing.
Folks who operate off-highway vehicles will have to pay the recreation fee as well as a new levy specific to their pastime imposed this year by the Legislature.
So why not just purchase the less-expensive license and join the protected class of hunters and anglers? State Game and Fish Department spokesman Rory Aikens told Fischer that to be considered “actively hunting or fishing” you have to use the implements of the activity.
“If I just see you riding your quad around and you just happen to have your pistol strapped to your hip, buddy, you ain’t hunting,” he said, adding, “Fire it around … Then you’re legal.”
The tongue-in-cheek advocacy of indiscriminate use of a firearm notwithstanding, this has potential to create an enforcement mess for Game and Fish agents in the field.
Aikens admitted that someone on state lands who is holding a hunting or fishing license but did not pay the user fee might get cited (fines for being on state trust lands without a recreational permit start at $300); they then would have to further clog our court system to plead their case.
In his cautionary commentary, Rogers wrote, “Make no mistake; fees are taxes to the party writing the check.”
Arizona officials created their budget mess by spending more than they had available in the checkbook. Now they are foisting responsibility for their bad decisions upon residents.
The Land Department should roll back the recreational use fees to previous levels, apply those fees equitably and learn to live within the budget it is provided.