Two companion bills to increases the recreational hunting and fishing fee paid to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) have cleared their respective committees. However, before giving it a “do pass” recommendation, the Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee made numerous revisions to SB 5692, including an expiration date for the fishing fee increase. The bill cleared the committee with little discussion or debate among lawmakers.
Introduced by Sen. Christine Rofles (D-23) at the request of WDFW, the fee increase is part of the state agency’s efforts to restore fiscal stability to its operating budget after the legislature cut funding by 31 percent during the Great Recession. Although its funding has increased since then, it is still not at pre-recession levels. State funding made up roughly half of the agency’s $437 million current operating budget, while hunting and fishing license fees provide roughly $112 million. The Discover Pass offers only $3.6 million per biennium.
Under the proposed operating budgets, only the House version would fully fund the $31 million requested by the agency, though the funding does go beyond the 2019-21 biennium.
The Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee initially held a public hearing for SB 5692 on Feb. 14 and planned a vote for it on Feb. 21, but no decision was made. Its companion bill is HB 1708 sponsored by Rep. Brian Blake (D-19). It received a “do pass” recommendation from the House Appropriations Committee on April 22 after a public hearing that same day.
Both bills would increase hunting and fishing fees by 15 percent. However, the Senate proposal has the fishing fee increase expire in 2025. The state agency is directed to use the fee revenue to “maintain or enhance” recreational and fishing activities. Also, the House version permits the Fish and Wildlife Commission to enact inflationary surcharges, while the Senate bill prohibits the commission from doing so.
The Senate also extends the Columbia River salmon and steelhead endorsement by only two years to 2021 rather than 2023. Under the program, anglers 15 years or older can purchase an endorsement funding the expansion of fishing opportunities in the Columbia River Basin. The Senate bill also allows the use of pound nets to harvest salmon on the Columbia River through the purchase of a $380 annual fee for a state resident.
An amendment proposed by Sen. Jesse Solomon (D32) would require the use of only barbless hooks when fishing for salmon and steelhead in the Columbia river and its tributaries. Although he withdrew it, he added that “we may revive this later, but at this point I think I don’t want to be a distraction from the main issues.”
WDFW Policy Director Nate Pamplin told Lens that the agency prefers the bill language retained in HB 1708, including the ability by the Fish and Wildlife Commission to enact inflationary surcharges and the extension of the Columbia River endorsement to 2023 instead of 2021.
“That provides challenges because it reduces the certainty in some of the long-term programs,” he said. “You end up going through that whole process again of notifying the public and staff that our funding will be reduced, and we have to go back through the legislature process to reinstate those appropriations.”
The Fish and Wildlife Commission first considered a fee increase in August and ultimately voted in favor of the proposal.
SB 5692 has been referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee. HB 1708 has not yet been assigned to its next committee.