Fee Hike Dead, WDFW Hopes For General Fund Infusion Instead

It’s now very unlikely Washington hunters and anglers will have to pay more for their licenses any time soon, as it appears WDFW’s fee increase bill is dead for the year.

That word this morning from the agency’s legislative liaison, Raquel Crosier.

“I think we’ll get between $5 million and $10 million in General Fund to deal with budget shortfalls. It’s not as much as we’d hoped for, but it plugs holes,” she said.

Crosier said that $10 million would still require deep cuts, “but not public-facing” ones, meaning they could be dealt with through efficiencies away from the eye of sportsmen and state residents.

As it stands, lawmakers are wrapping up their second special session today, with the third starting tomorrow. Crosier is optimistic a 2017-19 budget with funding for WDFW will be worked out before the June 30 deadline. Though McCleary may not be resolved, that would at least prevent closing fisheries and shuttering hatcheries till a deal is struck.

WDFW’s fee increase proposal — seen by some sportsmen as a done deal but actually requiring the legislature to approve and governor to sign into law — was the subject of a long campaign stretching all the way back to August 2015, when the agency took its Washington’s Wild Future initiative on the road around the state.

June 2016 saw the revealing of proposals, which would have raised around $26 million to help maintain and increase fishing opportunities and enhance hunting ops.

It included $17 catch cards for salmon, steelhead, halibut and sturgeon, later whittled down to $10 apiece in the face of opposition.

This February, the proposal received a public hearing in front of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which helped identify stakeholder concerns and that more work was needed outside Olympia with fishing and hunting groups on HB 1647.

Crosier said that as recently as a month ago, recreational organizations were supportive of 20 percent increases on the fishing side and 7 percent on the hunting side.

But while the Democratic-controlled House preferred the fee-based approach, Republicans who control the upper chamber did not, and it really showed in the language and approaches senators took with WDFW throughout this year’s legislative sessions.

When agency honchos talked about support from constituents, senators pointed to stacks of emails and letters expressing opposition.

If it had been approved, it would have been the first major hike since mid-2011, but to a degree, WDFW’s big ask also faced bad timing.

True, it may really need more funding, but on the backside of some stellar years of fishing, these past two have seen generally poor salmon runs and unprecedented fishery restrictions due to The Blob, the loss of access to Skokomish River kings and coho and the subsequent backing away of support for fee increases by three important angling organizations, as well as self-inflicted wounds such as the unexplained loss of a couple hundred thousand steelhead smolts from the state’s last best summer-run river, all of which left sportsmen wondering why they should pay more for less.

Despite the apparent death of license fee hikes this go-around, WDFW is hopeful two other revenue bills will pass.

This morning, the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee gave a do-pass recommendation to extending the Columbia River endorsement another two years, key for holding salmon and steelhead seasons in the basin.

Crosier said it’s likely the legislature will pass Sen. Kirk Pearson’s SB 5947, with fees going towards monitoring fisheries that occur on or amongst ESA-listed stocks.

And she is also hopeful that legislation addressing the rising threat to Washington waters from aquatic invasive species passes. Sen. Jim Honeyford’s bill has twice been approved unanimously by senators, but keeps getting shuttled back to the House as special sessions end and begin again.

Dipping into the General Fund for however much would begin to fill the $40 million cut out of WDFW’s budget from that source in 2009.

Looking further down the road past the hoped-for infusion, Crosier also mentioned creation of a conservation task force to look into how to better fund nongame management.

 

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