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Watercraft fee increase resurfaces in House panel

For the second time in three years, House members are debating increasing a triennial fee charged to boat owners for invasive species management and using the additional proceeds for a University of Minnesota research center.

HF1896, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Morrison (DFL-Deephaven), would increase the watercraft surcharge boat owners pay along with registration fees from $10.60 to $25.

The bill was laid over for possible omnibus bill inclusion Friday by the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee. It has no Senate companion.

At least $2 of every fee would go to grants to lake associations to manage aquatic invasive plant species, and $4 of every fee would go to grants for the Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center.

Morrison and bill advocates argue the existing fee is insufficient and that the research center will not be able to continue promising efforts without a permanent funding source.

"We have to step up and create funding so that the excellent work of [the research center] can continue to protect our lakes," Morrison said. "$8.33 a year to have the opportunity to do that doesn't seem like an excessive amount."

Since 1990, Minnesota has charged boat owners a fee for invasive-species management on top of watercraft license fees.

Originally $2, the fee was increased to $5 in 1993. A March 2019 effort by Morrison to increase the fee to $20 was unsuccessful, but a law enacted during the May 2019 special session increased it to $10.60.

Gov. Tim Walz has proposed increasing the fee to $11 to address challenges posed by an uneven dollar amount. But Department of Natural Resources Assistant Commissioner Bob Meier said the needs are great when it comes to aquatic-invasive-species management, noting the agency sought a higher fee in 2019.

He also said it is important to find a permanent funding source for the research center.

Republicans oppose the proposed fee increase. Rep. Spencer Igo (R-Grand Rapids) said he doesn't think it's a great idea to raise fees during a pandemic, and Rep. Josh Heintzeman (R-Nisswa) said increasing the fee could harm a Brainerd-based camp that has dozens of boats.

"When you pass bills like this, you literally tell kids, 'You don't get to go to camp, because the Legislature decided that we're going to go ahead, and we're going to exercise another tax on nonprofits,'" he said.

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