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Montana House approves vehicle fee increase to fund park, trail improvements

(HELENA) The Montana House has given preliminary approval to a proposal to increase an optional vehicle fee to support state parks and trails.

On Friday, House members voted 65-35 in favor of Senate Bill 24, sponsored by Republican Sen. Terry Gauthier of Helena.

Currently, Montana annual vehicle registration fees include a $6 fee to support state parks and fishing access sites. When paying their registration, drivers can mark a box opt out of the extra fee. Those who do pay it get free access to state parks using that vehicle.

SB 24 would increase the opt-out fee from $6 to $9. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks would use about 46% of that extra money for state parks and 8% for fishing access sites. Another 46% would be used to create a new trails and recreational facilities grant program. Cities, counties, tribes and other organizations could receive grants to pay for constructing new trails, maintaining existing ones or making improvements to facilities along trails or at trailheads.

Supporters said increasing the fee would be an important investment.

“Our parks, trails and fishing access sites are the infrastructure our growing outdoor economy must have to thrive,” said Rep. Tom Welch, a Republican from Dillon.

Opponents had wanted to amend the bill so that vehicle owners would have to specifically opt into paying the fee. They argued that it wasn’t sufficiently clear that drivers didn’t have to pay the state parks fee.

Republican Rep. Peggy Webb of Billings pointed to supporters of SB 24 saying that changing to an opt-in fee could reduce the amount of money collected.

“If it would be devastating to the state, that tells me that there are a lot of people paying for this when they didn’t intend to,” she said.

But supporters of the bill argued a $3 increase was not too much to ask.

“This small fee increase is basically keeping pace with inflation and will help ensure our booming outdoor-focused tourism industry remains a viable and strong economic driver for decades to come,” Welch said.

SB 24 was sent to the House Appropriations Committee for a hearing. If the committee approves the bill, it will face a final vote in the House.

-Reported by Jonathon Ambarian/MTN News

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