An optional fee increase on vehicle registrations that would help reduce a multi-million dollar maintenance backlog at state parks passed an initial vote in the Montana Senate today.
The fees Montanans pay when registering vehicles would increase from $6 to $9 under Senate Bill 24, although people could decline to pay the fee.
It would raise an estimated $2 million a year to fund the state’s 55 parks and fishing access sites, according to the Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning.
The bill’s sponsor, Helena Republican Terry Gauthier, says part of the fee will also fund a new state trail and recreation area grant program.
"It's my responsibility as a Senator here today, to find out how we’re going to fund these parks for future generations," he says.
The bill cleared it’s first vote in the Senate Tuesday, despite a majority of the Senate Fish and Game Committee objecting to the bill.
Last week, Republicans on the committee voted down and tabled the fee increase.
Thompson Falls Republican Jennifer Fielder chaired the committee.
During the Senate floor debate Tuesday, she said that although the park fee is optional, Montanans need to opt-out if they don’t want to pay it.
Fielder says some people might not know that’s an option, and end up paying the fee.
"And it just seems a little bit sneaky to some of us on the committee to do things that way," Fielder says.
According to state Motor Vehicle Division data, 77 percent of light vehicle registrations pay opt to pay the current $6 fee. That’s expected to drop to 76 percent if the $9 fee becomes law.
The Senate approved the light vehicle registration fee increase on a 31-19 initial vote.
According to an audit of Montana State Parks in April 2018, the parks face $22 million in maintenance needs. The audit also found that the Parks Division of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks had not planned or tracked progress in addressing those maintenance needs.