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Politics & Government

DNREC fee dispute could disrupt capital budget

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Disputes over how the state Department of Fish and Wildlife can increase fees related to hunting and trapping could upend next year’s capital budget.

New language approved by the Bond Bill Committee Friday would force any new fee or fee increase associated with hunting, trapping or fishing to go through the General Assembly.

Senate Republicans on the committee say they aren’t sure their caucus could support the measure, noting other fees for things like water quality permits and others can still avoid legislative approval.

“We feel that our constituents elect us to make those kinds of decisions to raise fees and taxes and that we were shifting away from us to the agencies and copping out on them,” said Sen. Gerald Hocker (R-Ocean View).

“We’re not ready for that,” said DNREC Secretary David Small, noting that an assessment of their fees outside of parks and fish and wildlife are just beginning.

Instead, Small notes his agency’s focus is solely on hunting and trapping.

“When the General Assembly returns we hope that we will have gone through a process and have a package ready for consideration by the General Assembly associated with fish and wildlife fees.”

Last year, the Joint Bond Bill allowed DNREC to raise fees administratively after going through in internal committee process with public comment.

One advisory council approved a $1.1 million increase to different certain state park fees.

Another more substantial increase to hunting and trapping fees would’ve nearly doubled the cost of some licenses, or in some cases, tripled their price.

The Wildlife and Freshwater Fish Advisory Council narrowly defeated that measure in December, with state officials saying the loss in revenue will exponentially increase by not being able to meet federal grant matching levels.

Delaware’s capital budget needs 3/4 of legislators in both chambers to pass and can’t be approved without Republican support.

Some lawmakers on the committee sought a compromise by requiring General Assembly oversight over other fee increases, but those efforts failed.

Another idea to include that language in a separate bill also stalled.

“It’s irresponsible to vote on something that would stop it from passing,” said Rep. Mike Ramone (R-Middle Run Valley).

Despite the heartburn, Democrats pushed the measure through without support from the three GOP lawmakers on the committee.

“We have all the things that are appropriate for public participation in the process,” said co-chair Sen. David Sokola (D-Newark) “If this isn’t what we want government to look like then I’m concerned.”