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May 01. 2014 8:31PM

'Hike safe' card receives preliminary Senate OK

CONCORD — The state would not bill hikers for the cost of their rescue if they purchase a “hike safe” card under a bill the Senate preliminarily approved Thursday.

The bill begins to address the issue of how to pay for hiker rescues that has plagued the state Fish and Game Department for years. Lawmakers have tried but failed to address the problem for many years as well.

The Fish and Game Department is largely funded by the fees collected for fishing and hunting licenses. But the cost of rescues falls mostly on the department, so instead of funding replenishing wildlife and fish species, some of the money pays for the rescues.

The Senate Finance Committee will review the bill before a final vote.

While the bill is a small step, said Sen. Bob Odell, R-New London, it does nothing to address the overall problems with the department’s financial situation.

While lawmakers studied the issue last year, the department’s director has said his agency faces a shortfall of between $3 million and $4 million a year in the next biennium.

The department’s budget for rescue costs often is exceeded, and officials have consistently asked lawmakers for another source of funding to pay for the rescues.

But budget writers have been reluctant to use state general fund money to pay for the rescues and instead have proposed other methods to no avail.

The state can charge hikers for the cost of the rescue, but most do not pay the bill.

In the past, rescues could involve the National Guard helicopters because they are called training missions. But now the National Guard charges for the use of helicopters and that greatly increases the cost of rescues.

Under House Bill 256, hikers would be able to purchase “Hike Safe” cards, which would allow card holders to escape state charges if they need to be rescued. The cards would cost $25 per person or $35 for a family.

People holding fishing and hunting licenses or who register snowmobiles or other off-road vehicles would also be exempt from rescue charges under the bill.

The Senate has until May 15 to act on the bill.

grayno@unionleader.com


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