Speaking in favor of Senate Bill 75 from the House floor yesterday, Representative Herman Otten (R-6/Tea) said charging South Dakotans $10 more for their hunting and fishing licenses (and out-of-staters $25 more) would help set up more food plots for wild game, pollinator plantings, and shelter belts, restore more grassland along the James River, enhance walk-in hunting areas, restore lakes, and repair old dams.
Sounds reasonable, right? That’s what we pay taxes for: improving public goods.
Of course, Republicans can’t raise taxes, so SB 75’s charge for a habitat stamp is called a fee. Rep. Michael Saba (D-9/Hartford) asked Rep. Otten to tell us the difference between a tax and a fee. Rep. Otten tried to oblige:
Oh, I don’t know if I can. I’m sure there’s a definition somewhere in all of it. You know, I guess I look at this as being a fee that the sportsmen and sportswomen of South Dakota are willing to pay. I think a tax is something that you have to pay. You can be an individual who’s not going to hunt and fish, and you’re able to go out and buy one of these habitat stamps also if you want to to help contribute to the habitat and the water access. So a tax, I guess, I don’t know if you could pay if you’re not required to. This is something that you can do if you want to, so… I don’t know if that answers your question [Rep. Herman Otten, response to question, House floor debate on SB 75, 2020.03.02, transcribed from SDPB video, timestamp 1:18:55].
Rep. Saba asked Rep. Otten if hunters have to buy this stamp. Rep. Otten said yes.
I’m intrigued by Rep. Otten’s suggestion that if you can choose to pay it, it’s a fee, not a tax. I don’t think my county auditor will turn away my extra dollars if I choose to throw a little extra into my property tax payment. The state won’t mind if Kessler’s throws an extra $1,000 in its monthly sales tax remittance. Conversely, I can choose not to pay property tax by not buying real estate. I can choose not to pay sales tax by growing my own food and buying all of my clothing and household items at rummage sales. Thus, we should refer to the state’s surcharge on homeownership and purchases as property fees and sales fees, not taxes.
Heck, by Otten’s logic, South Dakota doesn’t charge any taxes! Put that on the state t-shirt: South Dakota—No Taxes!
Fee or tax, Rep. Otten said SB 75 will generate five million dollars in revenue for the state.
Rep. Otten’s neighbor Rep. Isaac Latterell (R-6/Tea) asked if SB 75’s fee or tax would discourage participation in hunting. Rep. Otten said he hasn’t received any opposition from hunters or fishers.
Rep. Taffy Howard (R-33/Rapid City) said the three hunters in her family haven’t had time to e-mail, but they are opposed to the new tax on hunting. Playing off Rep. Otten’s definition, she said that if the stamp is optional for non-hunters, why not leave it optional for everyone and let those hunters who support more investment in habitat pay for it. “We don’t need to make it… to where only the wealthy can be hunters.”
Rep. Oren Lesmeister (R-28A/Parade) said he hasn’t heard any opposition from hunters or fishers. He said he never asks the cost of his hunting privileges. “This is one of the best bills that I can support as far as habitat goes, because it cannot be used against me as a producer,” referring to the SB 75 prohibition on using habitat stamp revenue to buy private land.
Rep. Tim Reed (R-7/Brookings) lamented the loss of public lands for hunting, saying that he hasn’t hunted anywhere but private reserves since high school. He said restoring more public habitat will get more people out hunting.
Rep. Tim Goodwin (R-30/Rapid City) said he hunts about every day in the fall and could seriously consider not running for reëlection because Session cuts into his mountain lion hunting. He says he and his dog can find all sorts of public habitat in East River and not see another hunter all day, so he questions whether we need more habitat. But he said he has trouble opposing the bill when all of the outdoors groups support it. He also suggested that we strike every reference to “tax” and “fee” in statute and just call them “tariffs.”
Rep. Goodwin ended up voting for this tax/fee/tariff increase on hunting and fishing. So did 49 other Representatives. The 14 Nays came mostly from right-wing Republicans, with Rep. Saba joining them as the sole Democratic negatory. Those 50 Ayes surpassed the two-thirds threshold necessary to pass a new appropriation.
House Agriculture and Natural Resources did amend SB 75 to exempt private shooting preserve licenses and “Hunt for Habitat” application fees from the new tax. The Senate will thus have to vote a second time to raise hunters’ and fishers’ taxes.