HELENA – The Montana Senate Tuesday endorsed a bill increasing by $3 the motor-vehicle fee that supports state parks and fishing-access sites.
Increasing the annual fee from $6 to $9 per vehicle would raise an additional $2 million a year for maintaining Montana’s 55 state parks, as well as the access sites, and fund a new grant program for improving public trails.
Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, the sponsor of Senate Bill 24, said it’s the first increase in the fee since 2003 and is a small price to pay to enjoy and enhance the state’s park system.
“This is for the grandkids, this is for my kids, this is for everybody in Montana,” he said. “I realize that not all of us have a six-section ranch to live on, (where) you have your own park in your own backyard. But for the rest of us, the 95 percent of Montanans, the parks are what it’s all about.”
The Senate voted 31-19 to endorse the measure. All 20 Senate Democrats and 11 Republicans voted for it. A final vote is expected Wednesday, after which the bill goes to the House.
The bill had been tabled in the Senate Fish and Game Committee last week, but on Friday Gauthier asked the full Senate to bring it to the floor – and it agreed, on a 30-16 vote.
Opponents of the bill said Tuesday they don’t like the way the fee is collected – as a “voluntary” payment on vehicle registration that people can choose to opt out of paying.
“It just seems a little bit sneaky to some of us,” said Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls. “We don’t allow businesses to do things that way.”
But Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, said the opt-out method of fee payment would remain the same, regardless of whether the bill passes or not, so it shouldn’t be a factor in arguing against the increase.
Residents who pay the annual fee get free entry into all state parks. Out-of-state residents must pay entry fees.
The motor-vehicle fee currently raises about $4 million a year to help fund state parks, fishing-access sites and historic Virginia and Nevada cities.
If SB24 passes, that amount would increase to about $6 million a year. Revenue for state parks would increase from $3.7 million to $4.6 million; money earmarked for fishing-access sites would double, from $174,000 to $343,000; and funds for Virginia and Nevada cities would stay the same, at about $260,000 a year.
About $950,000 of the increased revenue from the higher fee would finance the new grant program for trail improvement. The state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks would award the grants to local governments, tribal governments, recreational clubs and state and federal agencies.
Gauthier said there’s been a 33 percent increase in state-park visitation since 2012, and that increasing maintenance for the parks encourages more visitors to the state.
“That’s more money spent, more revenue collected, and we can fund the (state) general fund, which will pay for all the vitally important programs that we have,” he said.