UPDATED 3:50 P.M., JUNE 30, 2017 WITH COMMENTS FROM SEN. KIRK PEARSON
A budget that Washington lawmakers are racing to approve before midnight’s deadline includes money from the General Fund for WDFW instead of the agency’s requested recreational license increase.
Though half of what it had hoped to raise through higher fishing and hunting fees, the $10.1 million bump in an overall budget of $437 million is still being termed a “significant” amount considering the legislature’s major focus on education this year and other economic challenges.
“While this year’s budget doesn’t include much new program funding, we received a significant amount of new general fund which will help address the agency’s budget shortfall,” WDFW Director Jim Unsworth said in an all-staff late-morning email.
Raquel Crosier, the agency’s legislative liaison, called it “a really good Band-Aid and will help us avoid painful reductions.”
But it’s also a one-time fix that means WDFW will have to ask for another General Fund hit again in two years.
“The agency will be working over the coming months to identify smart reductions that avoid harsh impacts to our customers. We will also be working with legislators to consider some alternative long-term funding solutions for the agency,” Crosier added.
That would suggest sportsmen are off the hook for more than just two years for covering the budgetary shortfalls and enhanced fishing and hunting opportunities WDFW had been angling for with its $20-plus million Washington’s Wild Future package the past two years.
While it had been supported in proposed budgets from House Democrats and Governor Inslee, there was no interest in a fee hike from Senate Republicans, who favored dipping into the General Fund instead, and that appears to be what will pass.
The last fee increase was in 2011, which itself was the first in a decade.
That $10.1 million General Fund appropriation does come with a caveat — “a management and organizational review.”
Senators Kirk Pearson (R-Monroe) and John Braun (R-Centralia) have not been happy with WDFW and what they’ve been hearing about it from hunters and anglers.
“When WDFW proposed to increase hunting and fishing license fees to cover their fiscal problems early this year, we heard loud and clear from sportsmen that these increases were not to be bargained with. Instead, we are backfilling $11 million into the agency to maintain hunting and fishing opportunities while we begin addressing the problems at WDFW,” Pearson said. “Clearly, there are both fiscal and management problems that need to be addressed. Now we can better account of how their dollars are spent and bring a level of accountability to the agency that hasn’t been in place for years.”
That review comes with $325,000 to perform the audit.
“This is a big victory for those of us who want to see more hunting and fishing opportunities and a better-run department,” added Pearson. “We need to get WDFW back up and running in structurally sound way. This budget gets us back on that path.”
Meanwhile, Inslee is urging lawmakers to get him the budget as soon as possible to avoid a partial government shutdown that would also close all but one fishery in the state, shut down boat ramps and leave wildlife areas unstaffed.
In his message to staff, Unsworth said the bill should pass and get to the governor in time to head that off, as well as cancel the layoff notices most of his staff received.
On separate late-developing fronts in Olympia, a bill authorizing a fee increase for commercial fisherman is zipping through the Senate as I write and is expected to bring in $1.26 million.
Lawmakers have also pushed through a two-year extension of the Columbia River endorsement that otherwise would have expired tonight.
That helps preserve $3 million in funding to hold salmon and steelhead fisheries in the watershed that otherwise would not be able to occur because of monitoring requirements in federal permits due to ESA stocks.
And a bill that raises $1 million to fight aquatic invasive species passed both chambers in the past 24 hours.
Back to WDFW’s budget, it includes nearly $1 million for wolf management, including depredation prevention efforts and a consultant who is assisting the wolf advisory group.
It maintains funding regional fisheries enhancement groups with a $900,000 allocation, and provides $167,000 for a pilot project to keep Colockum elk away from I-90 and elsewhere in eastern Kittitas County.
It also authorizes spending $530,000 from the new steelhead plate for work on that species, $448,000 for studying ocean acidification, and $200,000 for operating the Mayr Brothers Hatchery in Grays Harbor County.
Besides not funding the Wild Future initiative, the budget leaves out money for increased enforcement of wildlife trafficking.
It also cuts $341,000 for surveying wildlife and $1 million from payment in lieu of taxes for wildlife areas it owns. The latter could have been worse — Inslee had proposed a $3 million hack.
And instead of $2.3 million for hydraulic project approvals, the legislature is appropriating $660,000.
Still to be determined is the state Capital Budget, which funds upkeep and renovations at hatcheries, access sites, as well provides grants for acquiring new wildlife areas.
According to Unsworth, one is expected in the coming weeks.