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License plate fees for Georgia wildlife conservation drying up

March 07, 2013 at 10:54 AM

The Associated Press

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Money gleaned from state auto tag fees to fund Georgia wildlife conservation programs are drying up.

When the special tag program started in the 1990s, almost all the extra fees motorists voluntarily pay for wildlife tags and other special license plates went to the programs the tags were created to support.

But three years ago, state lawmakers hiked the fees and began diverting most of the money into the state's general fund to supplement dwindling tax revenues.

Sales of the special tags steadily plummeted after the change.

Funds are also shrinking for other state programs that depend on those who voluntarily pay extra money for such tags, like the Department of Community Health's Indigent Care Trust Fund, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, and a dog and cat sterilization program of the state Department of Agriculture.

But the biggest loser under legislation that went into effect in 2010 is the state Department of Natural Resources' Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no tax money and depends on income from the special license plates for about 60 percent of its budget. The rest comes from income tax checkoffs, gifts and an annual fundraising event.

The money pays for programs that protect endangered sea turtles, research on how best to preserve natural areas where the state's rarest plants grow, and education programs that teach school children about the diversity of Georgia's natural environment, among many other programs. The section's scientists also do research to keep tabs on needed actions to protect songbirds and other nongame wildlife.

"They're protecting the diversity of the land," said Jennifer Ceska, conservation coordinator for the State Botanical Garden of Georgia and the project coordinator of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, a network of organizations involved in conservation education and research. The conservation section, she said, provides the guide that shows the alliance what preservation steps to take.

"It's really huge in terms of overall wildlife management strategies for all those species you don't hunt, fish or trap," said Todd Holbrook, executive director of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, of the tag-funded programs. "A lot of other states have not been as successful as Georgia."

But the decline in tag sales is beginning to hurt.

"The economic downturn has had a disproportionate effect on our state's natural resource agencies. This coupled with less revenue coming in from wildlife tag sales could impact the health of our communities and our quality of life," said Thomas Farmer, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy in Georgia, a conservation organization that often works with the Georgia DNR.

Up until 2010, motorists could pay $25 extra for a wildlife tag, which displayed either a hummingbird or an American eagle, and $22 went to the nongame program. There was no extra renewal fee in following years.

But under a law the Legislature passed a few years ago, tag buyers had to pay $35 extra to get a tag, plus another $35 renewal fee every year.

Lawmakers also changed where the money goes. Now, just $10 goes to the nongame conservation program, or dog and cat sterilization program, or whatever program the buyer wants to support. All but $1 of the rest goes to the state general fund.

The change briefly bumped up revenue, according to an analysis by the state Department of Audits and Accounts.

But the number of people willing to pay the higher fees to get a wildlife tag has sunk like a stone since the law went into effect in 2010. The number of those renewing their tags has also declined drastically, according to figures compiled by the department of audits and DNR.

From fiscal year 2004 through 2009, the nongame wildlife section got an average of about $2 million a year from sales of the special license plates. But for the past three years, revenue from the tags has declined to about $1.4 million on average, and is still going down, said Mike Harris, chief of the nongame section.

Unless something causes sales to unexpectedly increase, income to the nongame section from the wildlife tags will decline to about $1.1 million this year.

Sales of new wildlife plates have declined by 90 percent since 2010, Harris said, and fewer and fewer people who already have the wildlife plates are paying to renew them.

As a result, the number of cars and trucks with wildlife tags has declined by about 65 percent since 2010, Harris said.

"If this trend continues, we can expect decreased revenues in future years," he said.

According to the state Department of Audits and Accounts, the state issued a total of 34,292 hummingbird and eagle license plates in the 2010 fiscal year, but just 4,891 in fiscal year 2012.

Other programs are seeing similar declines.

Motorists bought 11,411 license plates for the dog and cat sterilization program in fiscal 2010, for example, but just 2,027 in the 2012 fiscal year. Sales of a breast cancer plate declined from 4,912 in 2010 to 1,311 in 2012.

Other conservation programs besides nongame wildlife are also suffering. The state sold 14,915 new bobwhite quail tags in the 2010 fiscal year, but just 2,436 in 2012.

Overall, sales of new tags and renewals for special tags declined by 60 percent in the two years following the new law, according to the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts.

The state general fund is also getting less money as tag sales decrease.

The tag sales generated about $17 million for the state general fund in 2011, but that declined to $13 million in the 2012 fiscal year, according to the Department of Audits and Accounts.

The Legislature changed the state law after a Department of Audits and Accounts analysis predicted the state could add $24 million a year to its coffers with changes to the tag program. But that report also called for other changes, not adopted, such as a marketing program and new, more attractive tag designs such as states like Florida have adopted.

Republican state Reps. Willie Talton, Tom Rice, Richard Smith, Robert Dickey and Buddy Harden have introduced legislation that would reverse the fee distribution. Most would go to the programs, and $10 from each tag sale or renewal would go to the state general fund.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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