WDFW Fee Hike Fails, Columbia Endorsement Expires As Lawmakers Pass Budget

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s proposed fee hike failed in the state legislature and the Columbia salmon and steelhead endorsement will expire as lawmakers passed a two-year budget over the weekend.

A high-ranking WDFW official says that $24 million in General Fund revenues have been allocated to the agency for a one-time patch to address in part a $31 million shortfall, which the fishing and hunting license increase would have half filled, but it will take as much as a week to parse through budget documents to figure out all the impacts and ramifications.

“It’s going to take some time to review and discuss with executive management on how best to balance the budget and make decisions on which services will be reduced or eliminated from the areas identified in the zero-based budget analysis,” Nate Pamplin, WDFW’s policy director, said this morning.

Programs that exercise identified as at risk included hatchery operations, hunting and lands management, shellfish enforcement, and wildlife conflict prevention, among others.

Earlier this month WDFW warned that Westside pheasant hunting and Reiter, Whitehorse, Naches, Chelan and Meseberg hatcheries, which together produce 2.6 million steelhead, salmon and trout, were at risk without a fee bill.

The Columbia endorsement, itself a shortfall-filling measure from 2010, brought in $3.3 million every two years and was used to hold and monitor fisheries over Endangered Species Act-listed Chinook, coho, steelhead and other stocks in the big river.

This is the second long session in a row that a WDFW-requested fee bill to plug holes and increase opportunity has failed to be passed.

When 2017’s went down, lawmakers provided a $10 million one-time General Fund hit and required the agency to review its operations for efficiencies and perform that zero-based budgeting exercise.

WDFW also formed a Budget and Policy Group which found broad support for full funding, and last summer the Fish and Wildlife Commission signed off on asking lawmakers for what would have been if passed the first fee hike since 2011 as part of a $60 million package to deal with the shortfall and enhance fishing and hunting, funded with 75 percent General Fund money and 25 percent licenses.

In January, state representatives and senators introduced bills that would have raised fees by 15 percent, with a $7 cap on bundled packages, and extended the Columbia endorsement.

Public hearings were held in February, and while support and concerns were raised, the lower chamber’s bill was given a do-pass recommendation out of the natural resources committee.

But as the Fish and Wildlife Commission moved towards allowing gillnetting in the Columbia again for fall Chinook this year, the bills stalled as members of the fishing community raged over the citizen panel’s early March vote, essentially entangling the measure in the upper chamber like a fall bright in 9-inch mesh.

Earlier this month, lawmakers came out with their operating budget proposals and the fee increase and endorsement were not in the Senate version, though they remained in the House’s.

As the session drew to the April 28 close, last week the original fee bills were revived in committees, but with the Senate’s amended to sunset the fishing increase after six years and given strong policy statements about Columbia fisheries management.

In anticipation of the House bill getting out of the chamber late last week, the Senate Ways and Means Committee listed it on its Saturday morning public hearings docket, but that didn’t happen and signaled time had run on the fee hike.

“I am disappointed that we could not get the General Fund money to be ongoing funding and hope that next session that we can get the agency fully funded,” said Rep. Brian Blake (D-Aberdeen), who was the prime sponsor on the House fee bill.

The agency’s overall $508 million passed operating budget does appear to include a $15 million line item for WDFW, utilities and numerous tribes to increase hatchery salmon releases to benefit orcas and upgrade production facilities.

Pamplin said staffers are now going through the 809-page budget, “trying to sort out which fiscal year the various appropriations are placed and understand other aspects and details from the budget.  We’ll also want to discuss with affected staff.”

Part of that was an afternoon all-staff webinar where issues were laid out.

“I’d say it’s going to take at least a week to sort through some of these details,” Pamplin said.

The passed capital budget appears to include $58 million for WDFW for hatchery and other construction projects, as well as several million for improved access, habitat restoration and other lands projects.

We’ll have future blogs on this as more details become available.

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