Commentary: Paying rational prices

Feb 13, 2013

One day in the mid-1990s, a woman I knew went off to get her hair done. When the time came to pay, however, she offered the bewildered hairdresser less than a dollar. Suddenly, she wanted to pay everyone 1940’s prices. This didn’t go over very well. But it was soon clear that she was suffering from a fast-moving form of dementia. She wasn’t to blame for her idea that she ought to pay far less than things were worth.

However, those in charge of our state are to blame if they aren’t willing to charge what things are worth, or pay for things which are good long-term investments. We have two examples of that right now.

One is the governor’s call to raise hunting and fishing licenses. This set off howls of protests from sporting groups. But Michigan has been undercharging for these licenses for years, and the state -- and specifically the Department of Natural Resources -- have been losing out on millions badly needed for conservation. Much of that money from the pockets of out-of-state hunters.

I have long suspected this, but two excellent articles in the Center for Michigan’s online magazine Bridge spell out the facts and figures this week. Despite the fact that prices for just about everything have increased since 1997, we haven’t changed what we charge for game licenses.

Michigan is one of the best hunting and fishing states in the nation, especially perhaps for deer. If you want to go to Washington state and hunt deer, a guest license will cost you more than $500. If someone from Seattle comes here to shoot deer, he or she will pay only $138. We charge Michigan natives a mere $15 for a deer license, the third cheapest rate in the nation.

The same is true for fishing licenses; we are one of the best states for fishing, especially fly fishing, and again, one of the cheapest, especially for visitors. Most good fly fishing states charge almost twice as much.

The governor is proposing some modest fee increases that would raise about $18 million a year, which would allow the DNR to add some conservation officers and improve the natural habitat. But there are anti-tax diehards in the legislature who vow to vote against any tax increase, even one that is so clearly worth it. It’s not clear whether reason can prevail.

On another issue, however, it is the governor who is being a bit narrow. Lakes Huron and Michigan are at record low levels, and many harbors need to be dredged so cargo vessels can pass through. This is sort of the nautical version of road repair.

Some state senators want to do this right away by taking $30 million out  of the state rainy day fund, which now has over half a billion dollars. But the governor wants to spend less, and only after the budget process, which will take months.

The governor is right to want a healthy reserve, but in this case, he may be hurting commerce by refusing to use it. He ought to realize this is one more case where common sense is, as usual, the best ideology of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.