A warning to Utah’s deadbeat parents who hunt and fish: A bill in this year’s legislative session would revoke your privileges to stalk fish and game if you fall too far behind in child-support payments.
With bipartisan support, the Utah House on Tuesday advanced HB197, which seeks to use such privileges as leverage over noncustodial parents who are more than $2,500 behind in these payments.
Utahns overall are $400 million in arrears on child support, affecting about 121,000 children, Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, told her House colleagues.
While Lisonbee’s bill is winning wide backing, lawmakers may also vote to enshrine hunting as a “right” under the Utah Constitution.
Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, is sponsoring HJR15, which states: “The individual right of the people to hunt, to fish, and to harvest wildlife is a valued part of the State’s heritage and shall be forever preserved for the public good.” If the Legislature passes the measure, it would go before Utah voters later this year.
Before HJR15 hits committee in the coming weeks, however, Snider intends to amend it to make clear that hunting is not an unconditional right.
“I’m not trying to make this a right that can’t be modified. It is subject to existing laws,” Snider said. “I’m trying to get at the fundamental opportunity [to hunt] in the longer term.”
While hunting is on the rise in Utah, Snider said, it is trending downward nationally.
“With a decline over time," he warned, “this right to harvest fish and wildlife could be infringed.”
HB197 takes a different tack toward hunting and fishing, treating them as “privileges” that can be taken away over something that has nothing to do with wildlife.
Still, Snider voted for Lisonbee’s bill, which won approval from 68 House members and “no” votes from four Republicans: Reps. Phil Lyman of Blanding, Kim Coleman of West Jordan, Marc Roberts of Salem and Travis Seegmiller of St. George.
Currently, the governor-appointed Wildlife Board holds the primary authority to revoke or suspend hunting and fishing privileges. HB197 shifts some of that power to another state agency, the Office of Recovery Services.
There are about 21,000 Utahs who hunt and fish and are in arrears, Lisonbee noted, a figure that represents about a fourth of all deadbeat parents.
If HB197 becomes law, a hunter bagging a deer using an invalidated license would be guilty of a class B misdemeanor. The bill is expected to cost the Division of Wildlife Resources thousands of dollars in lost license fees and matching federal funds.
In the face a large projected fiscal impact, Lisonbee softened her bill with amendments so it would target only 6,700 parents, those who are making little or no effort to cover the cost of their children’s upbringing.
“This change significantly reduces the fiscal impact on this bill,” she said. “The policy change in the [substitute bill] allows noncustodial parents, who have a plan with ORS and are abiding by that plan for at least 12 months, to be eligible for hunting and fishing licenses and tags in Utah.”
Accordingly, the fiscal impact associated with lost licenses fees dropped to about $440,000 a year, and DWR now supports the measure, which would not take effect until 2021.
“We can absorb this fiscal impact because this bill is the right thing to do,” DWR Director Mike Fowlks told the House Judiciary Committee last week. “It gives us a year and a half for implementation.”
He expects the agency to develop a system that automatically revokes licenses of those who are in arrears and restores them when they get current or on a payment plan.
States with similar laws include New Hampshire, Delaware, New Mexico, South Dakota, Kansas and Pennsylvania, according to Lisonbee. The hunting license rule helps Pennsylvania reap at least $800,000 a month in overdue payments, she told colleagues.
“It is clearly working in incentivizing payment of child support in Pennsylvania," Lisonbee said, “and we hope it would do the same in Utah.”