By Dale Carruthers, The London Free Press
MPP Jeff Yurek’s proposed bill to tighten rules about how the government spends money generated from hunting and licensing fees has been shot down at Queen’s Park.
The Progressive Conservative on March 7 introduced a private members bill to beef up spending requirements surrounding the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s so-called special purpose account (SPA), a fund that collects nearly $75 million annually from licensing fees paid by anglers and hunters in Ontario.
The money is supposed be spent on wildlife management and to improve angling and hunting across the province, but the handling of the fund has come under fire in recent years for a lack of transparency and questionable expenditures.
The bill was rejected on March 9 – just hours after a Southwestern Ontario group representing hunters and anglers applauded the proposed legislation, calling it long overdue.
“It has flown under the radar for long enough,” Ken Currah, director of the Aylmer Stakeholders Committee, said of the fund.
Troubling details about how the fund was used emerged after the Aylmer group — representing 1,400 Southwestern Ontario landowners, hunters and farmers — applied for $10,000 to evaluate deer populations in the Elgin, Middlesex and Oxford wildlife zone.
The organization was denied its appeal, prompting it to file a freedom-of-information request to get the details of how the fund was being spent.
After years of delay, the ministry turned over a list of expenditures for 2011-2012. Included on this list was $65,000 to buy and sell a house, $4,000 for rental accommodations and $12,251 for psychologists.
Yurek, who represents Elgin-Middlesex-London, said the fund’s lack of transparency had been on his radar since he was elected in 2011.
At one point, the ministry had fallen five years behind publishing its annual report on the fund, Yurek said.
“That raised red flags at the time then,” Yurek said. “They are caught up with this annual report, but it is not detailed, it is broad.”
The proposed bill would have streamlined how the fund is paid out to ensure the money goes to fish and wildlife management, create an advisory committee and avenue for hunters and anglers to inquire about expenditures, Yurek said.
Knowing private members bills from opposition politicians don’t have a good track record of become law, Yurek said it was important to raise the issue ahead of Ontario’s June election.
The ministry previously defended the spending from the special account, saying staff salaries and benefits for staff performing fish and wildlife management activities are paid from the account.
“They’re using the fund to backfill a shortage elsewhere,” Currah said, adding that licensing fees paid by hunters and anglers keep going up, while less money seems to be spent on wildlife projects.
“We need that SPA fund to be used in the right way to benefit anglers and hunters.”