Washington fish and wildlife managers submitted a $26 million supplemental budget request to the Governor’s Office yesterday as fee bill and state lawmaker failures have left the agency underfunded in recent years.
One of WDFW’s key piggy banks could dip into the red next March and significantly so the following year because license revenues and funding aren’t keeping up with growing costs, heaped-on responsibilities and dealing with new issues that are cropping up.
This new money would come out of the General Fund and WDFW hopes it will be ticketed as “ongoing” so it would not have to be reauthorized every year or two.
If approved by next year’s legislature, $6.5 million would go towards maintaining things like production of 4.5 million salmon, steelhead and trout at eight hatcheries, Columbia River fisheries, and Westside pheasant hunting, as well as dealing with problem animals in residents’ backyards and elsewhere;
(Conversely, if they’re not funded, they have been identified as having to be cut to stay in budget.)
$6.8 million would go towards “emerging needs” like monitoring fisheries on Puget Sound and two rivers, including Skagit C&R steelhead, removing more pinnipeds to increase Chinook numbers when a permit is OKed by the feds, and coming up with alternative fishing gear for Columbia netters;
and $12.5 million would go for “unavoidable” items passed on by legislators without funding, including COLAs, and rising costs associated with hatchery operations and attorney fees.
The size of the request is pretty large given the short, 60-day session that will begin in January, and WDFW Director Kelly Susewind acknowledged as much in a press release today.
But he also pointed out the substantial return on investment that state funding of fishing and hunting activities has for the economy, a message to lawmakers as much as ammo for supporters to remind their representatives and senators of.
“We would rather not be in this position of requesting a substantial amount of money to sustain basic, core activities that we know provide such fundamental public value,” he said. “We estimate that for every State General Fund tax dollar invested in WDFW, and leveraged with other fund sources, that fish and wildlife economic activities generate another $3.50 that goes back into the state coffers. We’re seeking adequate, ongoing funding to sustain that kind of return on investment into the future.”
This is all the latest act in a long-running play that began somewhere around the Great Recession when WDFW’s General Fund contributions were cut sharply and which have yet to fully return to previous levels, even as the state’s economy booms.
According to WDFW, less than 1 percent of General Fund revenues go towards itself, DNR, Ecology, State Parks, Puget Sound Partnership and other natural resource agencies, combined.
As for the last license fee increase, it was back in 2011 and bids by the current and former directors to get lawmakers to pass another and help shore up the agency’s finances have not gone over very well.
Some of that is just bad timing — making asks on the downswing of cyclical game and fish populations.
Arguably 2015’s salmon and hunting seasons were among the best of recent decades, but the dropoff since then — when Susewind and Jim Unsworth had their hands out — has been intense and widespread.
Yet even as the Blob and environmental conditions, along with ongoing, multi-decadal habitat destruction, and reduced hatchery production due to operations reforms and budget cuts are largely to blame, many of WDFW’s customers are reluctant these days to pay more for less.
Then there was the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Columbia gillnet vote this past March, as spectacular an own goal as you can kick.
Meanwhile, WDFW’s “structural deficit” grows deeper and deeper. The aforementioned piggy bank, the State Wildlife Account — where every single penny of your fishing and hunting license dollars go, every single one — has gone from a shortfall of $300,000 in the 2011-13 biennium, when the last license fee increase was passed, to $23.2 million in the 2019-21 biennum.
Its cash balance is expected to plunge into negative figures next March and much deeper in spring 2021 if nothing’s done.
It all threatens the fisheries and hunts we still have.
In the end lawmakers have gone with one-time funding patches, but the problem is they’re typically not enough to fill the hole.
For instance, with the agency facing a $31 million shortfall this year and next, Olympia scrapped the fee hike and instead provided $24 million in General Fund money, leaving a temporary $7 million gap — that then immediately ballooned back out to $20 million due to unfunded mandates that were passed on like the cost of living increase for game wardens, biologists, and others.
Still, $24 million is better than nothing and with how it was structured, it “front loaded” WDFW’s budget towards year one of the two-year cycle in anticipation that lawmaker would return and work on it again in 2020.
And that is how we got to today and the supplemental budget request.
Rather than attempt the folly of running another fee bill, the Fish and Wildlife Commission earlier this summer signed off on the proposal.
WDFW is also looking for another $26 million to make capital improvements to its facilities, with about 60 percent of that designated for three hatcheries, and $1 million for a master planning process to boost Chinook production by up to 55 million a year for orcas and which would also likely benefit anglers.
“Our work provides tremendous value to the people in our state,” said Susewind. “The ongoing funds to create a fully healthy agency is critical to our residents’ quality of life, critical to our ability to conserve fish and wildlife, and critical to maintaining sustainable natural resource jobs across Washington.”
A tremendous value at a time of tremendous headwinds and crosswinds and little in the form of helpful tailwinds.