We Washington hunters and anglers don’t all have the best grasp on where our recreational license fees actually go.
I will readily admit to that myself — and here I’ve been watching WDFW fairly closely over the past decade and a half as a hook-and-bullet editor!
But more broadly speaking, if we’re not claiming all the money goes straight into the state General Fund for schools and the slammer, we’re threatening to boycott the agency to starve them of our license revenues!
But if our combo licenses and deer tag dollars are just going to pay to have Inslee’s dandelion patch weeded or whatever, what would the point of not buying them in the first place be?
We wouldn’t actually have any economic leverage whatsoever.
So some of us clearly understand that license dollars equal some degree of pull, yet it’s also a strong perception among others that all or a large chunk of our money funnels straight into GF-S.
Last week, after I posted a link on Facebook to a blog I did on a bill that aimed to increase hunting and fishing participation in Washington, two people commented that 0 and 3 percent of our fees actually go to WDFW.
That seemed a bit on the low side, so I asked two acquaintances who’ve spent more than a few of their hard-earned dollars on licenses over the decades what they thought.
“I would love to say 100 percent,” a friend texted me when I asked him how much of his dough he believed went to the agency, “but I’m a realist and I’ll say 30 percent.”
When I gave one of my writers a pop quiz, he first came back with 0 percent, then 40 percent and finally 110 percent.
To be honest, if I’d given myself the same test, I’d have said it was actually a fairly high percentage, but as for a specific figure, well …
One of the gentlemen who’d commented on the aforementioned Facebook post — and who seemed pretty damned sure his lowball figure was accurate — advised me to get my “pencil sharpened better. Do some investigation.”
So I decided to do a bit more of that — and I sincerely thank Mr. 3-percenter for that nudge. I didn’t know some of what I learned.
PROWLING WDFW’S WEBSITE AS I AM OFTEN WONT TO DO, I recently came across some figures that might help out on this question, so I contacted Nate Pamplin.
Pamplin is a high-ranking agency staffer — Policy Director is his official title — whose head has been buried in budgets and revenue sources and biennial spending and long-term funding problems for the past few months.
While they seemed pretty straight forward enough for anyone to grasp, these days I know better than to underestimate my ability to misinterpret things — ask me sometime about my recent $500 car battery change, it was awesome! — so I emailed Pamplin for clarification.
That night, as I was sitting on the couch basking in the glory of Norwegians (I’m Norsk on Mom’s side) winning gold and silver in the Men’s Downhill, I saw I had a new email from him.
Pamplin told me that our license fees go into the State Wildlife Account, and most of the money is unrestricted — it can be used for just about anything under WDFW’s purview.
How much does WDFW rake in annually from us? Around $18 million in total hunting license sales and $26 million in total fishing license sales, or $88 million every budget biennium, according to recent figures.
It was very nice of Pamplin to take the time to get back to me after hours, but unfortunately for him, it just led to another question from me: Is WDFW the only state agency that can tap the State Wildlife Account?
That is, when I buy that deer tag and when I buy that freshwater-saltwater license, Nate, can I be assured that that money goes back to and is used by WDFW and none of it ends up in the coffers of, say, the state Asparagus Commission, the Forest Practices Board, or the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation?
“By state and federal law, hunting and fishing license fees cannot be ‘diverted,'” Pamplin replied. “That is, it cannot be swept into the General Fund or used for purposes outside of fish and wildlife management.”
He said that our dollars are “reinvested” in WDFW and its myriad responsibilities.
Caveats to that? Of course there are.
When you buy a special-ticket item like a Discover Pass to park and fish in state parks or hunt on DNR lands, by law that revenue is divvied up 84-8-8 between State Parks, WDFW and DNR.
The Columbia River salmon and steelhead endorsement goes towards managing salmon and steelhead fisheries on the Columbia River — not wolves or wombats or walleye. It’s a restricted account.
And Pamplin notes that certain endorsements we pay do go to other agencies, though I’d add they ultimately help our cause.
“One example is the biotoxin fee on shellfish licenses, which goes to the Department of Health and University of Washington for toxicity testing,” he says.
No tox tests, no clam digging or crabbing.
SO, THEN, WHAT THE HELL EXACTLY DOES WDFW spend our license money on?
Among Pamplin’s plethora of PDFs is a three-pager that outlines what our user fees paid for during the 2015-17 budget biennium. Again, user fees are primarily our license dollars, but also include things like the Disco Pass as well as now-lapsed hydraulic project approval permit fees.
- $37.5 million to manage fisheries;
- $20.5 million to manage hunting seasons;
- $20.2 million for business management obligations;
- $16.3 million to produce hatchery fish;
- $10.1 million to manage and acquire wildlife areas and water access sites;
- $8.4 million to preserve and restore water-based species and their habitat;
- $3.8 million to preserve and restore land-based species and their habitat;
- $3 million for nonconsumptive recreational opportunities.
That’s a lot of money — around $120 million. It stacks up pretty well compared to WDFW’s other revenue sources.
Another chart from Pamplin showed that in 2015-17 the federal government kicked big bucks back our way in the form of Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts disbursals amounting to $44 million in that biennium.
Of note, the formula for sharing PR and DJ funds between the states is based in part on how many fishing and hunting licenses that WDFW and other agencies sell, so maybe that writer and his final pop-quiz guess of 110 percent wasn’t so far off after all.
“States are required to provide match at a 3:1 rate,” Pamplin points out. “For every $3 of fed funds from these grants, the state needs to provide a $1 match. Both PR and DJ require the states to not divert funding from license fees.”
State and local contracts — think electrical utilities paying WDFW to operate fish hatcheries as dam mitigation — contribute another $115 million.
General taxes kick in around $90 million, state bonds roughly $38 million, special license plates around $7 million and something called the “revolving account” about $4 million.
All totaled, we provide a “significant contribution” to WDFW.
“In discussions with hunters/anglers, we often mention that their license fees, leveraged with PR and DJ, account for about one-third of WDFW’s operating budget — a significant contribution. Likewise, state and federal taxpayers and electricity ratepayers (of which hunter/anglers also pay state/federal taxes and buy electricity) account for two-thirds of WDFW’s operating budget,” Pamplin says.
If you combine all those sources — user fees, federal, state and local, etc., etc. — this is how much WDFW spent in 2015-17 on the categories I mentioned above
- $130 million to produce hatchery fish;
- $110 million to manage fisheries;
- $82 million to preserve and restore water-based species and their habitat;
- $62 million to manage and acquire wildlife areas and water access sites;
- $55 million for business management obligations;
- $45 million to manage hunting seasons;
- $25 million to preserve and restore land-based species and their habitat;
- $10 million for nonconsumptive recreational opportunities.
Now, we can AND SHOULD argue till Bossy comes home whether the $55 million for biz management is too much (or too little) and if individual line items in each category are ridiculous (or not).
But, to be blunt, our fishing and hunting licenses — and their implied interest in the pursuit of game and fish and thus the need to manage for their longterm survival — leverage a helluva lot of dough our way.