Fish and Wildlife pause on fee hikes

Fish and Wildlife pause on fee hikes
Worries over potential backlash from outdoor enthusiasts led the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to pause on voting whether to recommend higher hunting and fishing fees to the state legislature as a way to balance the state agency’s $30 million deficit. Photo: City of Leavenworth

Fear of backlash by outdoor recreational enthusiasts forced to pay higher fishing and hunting fees led the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to pause on voting at a recent meeting on whether to recommend the proposal to the state legislature. The commission met Aug. 9 to discuss plans by the state agency to address a $30 million deficit in its 2019-21 biennial budget.

Among the ways the state agency intends to plug its deficit is by increasing fees paid by hunters and anglers; either a 12-15 percent across-the-board increase on all licenses or a surcharge. The proposals are expected to bring in $16-20 million for 2019-21. Currently, hunting and fishing license revenue generates over $100 million per biennium.

However, Commissioner Bob Kehoe said “this could be perceived as the wrong time. Is there ever a good time to ask for a fee increase? Probably not. What I would be afraid of is we get people worked up into a fever opposing the fee increase. There’s no easy answer to this, obviously, but I think timing is critical.”

That reluctance was shared by Commissioner David Graybill, who noted that it could harm recreational fishing already affected by limited seasons and fewer fish. Possible action taken to restore the Southern Resident killer whales could also limit fishing even further.

“We really need to consider that as we move with this budget,” he said. “How much we can ask from the public, when they’re getting less opportunity?”

“There’s so many unknowns out there,” Vice Chair Larry Carpenter said. “Now we have the issue with the Southern Resident killer whales. What’s the end result going to be?”

Reduced hunting and fishing activity brought on by higher fees could also put a dent in the state’s coffers. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) estimates that hunting, fishing and wildlife watching will contribute nearly $340 million dollars to the State General Fund over the next two years via sales tax and the business and occupation (B&O) tax.

Agency documents warn that “most users already feel underserved, and we’re at risk of real program cuts and real impacts to species if funding is not increased and stabilized.”

The fee increases are just one of several ways the state agency intends to balance its budget, a problem brought on by deep cuts by the legislature in 2011. Over half its budget contains spending restrictions by the funding sources. A 2018 report by a consulting group to the agency offered several recommendations, such as creating a broad funding base, but failed to find any major spending inefficiencies.

Commissioners also expressed reservations with “efficiencies” made in the agency’s proposed 2019 budgets and long-term funding plan, which Commissioner Barbara Baker says are really just cuts to services. Although the agency is requesting more funding, the plan assumes no new money from the legislature.

She cautioned that the proposals could come off as “we’re saying ‘that’ stuff isn’t as valuable as ‘that’ stuff. I want to make sure…that isn’t the message that’s given. The message that’s given is ‘here’s the best we can do given our resources, and you guys make the decisions.’”

In addition to higher fees, the commission could also recommend legislation introduced during this year’s session that would allow the agency to do bundled license packages and discounts, offer a $20 coupon for hunters ed on their first license and align the youth ages for fishing and hunting licenses.

The commission is expected Friday afternoon to vote on recommended legislation, the 2019 supplement budgets, the 2019-21 budgets and the long-term funding plan.

A House Appropriations committee will review the agency’s budget in September.

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