The legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee surprised observers by spending more time debating a bill on ATV registration fees than the controversial proposal to allow game wardens to stop ATV riders without suspecting those riders of violating any laws. The committee acted on both issues on Monday, April 11.
Last year game wardens sited only fifty-six ATV riders for operating on private land without permission. That could change if wardens get the authority they seek to stop ATV riders anywhere, anytime, without suspecting they are violating any laws.
Although ATV riders are required to have landowner permission, wardens currently are not allowed to stop them to find out if they do, unless the riders are obviously violating a law. The legislature struggled through a bitter fight last session on this issue, ultimately deciding not to give wardens this authority.
This year the legislature returned to the issue in a more subdued and collegial fashion. The principal bill, LD 254, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Sarty, won overwhelming support at its public hearing. ATV-Maine joined other groups representing sportsmen and landowners in supporting it. Only the Maine Civil Liberties Union spoke in opposition.
Two other bills were also presented. One, LD 1209, sponsored by Rep. Dale Crafts, mirrored a late-session compromise that was launched last year, giving game wardens the authority to stop ATV and snowmobile riders without suspecting a violation of law, anyplace other than on authorized trails.
The second bill, LD 413, sponsored by Senator Troy Jackson, would permit a game warden to stop and question operators of recreational vehicles (both ATVs and snowmobiles) only when there is reasonable and articulable suspicion to believe that a violation of the law has occurred or is occurring. This would actually roll back the existing authority to stop snowmobile riders.
LD1209 was unanimously killed by the IF&W Committee on April 11. LD 1209 won the support of only three committee members: Representatives Crafts, Davis, and Woods.
Rep. Sarty’s bill, LD 254, won the support of eight committee members: Representatives Sarty, Eberle, Woods, Espling, Guerin, and Clark, and Senators Tom Martin and John Patrick. Two committee members were absent.
Senator Patrick made a strong speech, telling committee members that this was the number one issue he heard about while campaigning last fall, hearing from landowners who told him he’d better support them on this issue.
Rep. Sarty backed him up, saying, “If we don’t respect the wishes of the landowners, we will all lose.” Rep. Jane Eberle argued strongly for the Sarty bill, referring to all the individuals and groups that testified for it.
Crafts, arguing for his more restrictive bill, came up with the quote of the day, reacting to the Maine Supreme Court ruling, by a close four to three vote, that it was not a violation of our Constitutional rights for wardens to stop ATV riders without suspecting a violation of law. “You can support the position of the three Justices who respect our Constitutional rights, or the four Justices who don’t care about the Constitution,” said Crafts.
The bill now advances to the full House and Senate, where the debate will continue.
LD 175, sponsored by Rep. Paul Gilbert, would create a short-term registration system for all-terrain vehicles for nonresidents similar to the short-term registration system established for snowmobiles. The bill’s work session opened a wide-ranging discussion of both ATV and snowmobile registration fees.
IF&W Committee members offered several proposals, including one that would have raised annual ATV registration fees to $88 a year to match the snowmobile registration fees. The intent of the bill, to give nonresident ATV riders a short-term discounted fee, got lost in the discussion for a while.
The committee’s Senate Chair, Tom Martin, said that he snowmobiled in Canada where the fee is $200 for a weekend or $300 for the season. “We sell ourselves short,” he said. Maine charges $88 for an annual snowmobile registration and $33 for a three-day registration.
The current annual registration fee for an ATV is $68. Rep. Gilbert’s bill called for a $53 seven-day fee.
Committee members suggested a variety of options, including one that changed the three-day snowmobile registration to a seven-day registration for both ATVs and snowmobiles. That proposal drew a sharp objection from Bob Meyers of the Maine Snowmobile Association.
Representative Sheryl Briggs, after discussing the issue with IF&W’s licensing director Bill Swan, offered a suggestion that the fine for operating an unregistered ATV be raised from the current $100 to $250 to match the fine for operating an unregistered snowmobile.
That suggestion found favor with the committee, giving Colonel Joel Wilkinson a $44,000 payday for the Warden Service, which gets to keep the fines.
Wilkinson distributed a report at Representative Steve Woods’ request showing the number of residents and nonresidents charged with ATV law violations in 2009 and 2010. Only forty nonresidents were sited in 2010 for riding an unregistered ATV, compared to 254 residents.
The IF&W Committee eventually awarded a unanimous vote to an amended version of LD 175 that leaves the annual ATV registration fee at $68, creates a seven-day reduced registration fee of $43, and raises the fine for operating an unregistered ATV to $250.
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