Despite a revenue surplus of $4.4 billion for the 2019-21 biennium – and a $7.7 billion spending increase in the operating budget – the state legislature provided the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife just $24 million of the $31 million requested to close the agency’s operating budget shortfall.
While legislators also approved increased spending for hatchery production sought by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, agency officials warn that the lack of sustainable funding will continue to hinder the department’s ability to provide greater recreational opportunities.
Notably, the $24 million included in the budget is not marked as a permanent appropriation from the general fund.
“It is disappointing to be in a spot where in two years the $24 million expires and we’re back into a significant budget hole,” Policy Director Nate Pamplin told Lens. “In addition, we’re going to have to reduce or eliminate some services to just try to live in the budget.”
The budget cuts come after the agency already formed a Budget and Policy Advisory Group and had a consultant examine WDFW for possible spending reductions. However, the report “did not find signs of gross over-staffing, inefficiency, or significant ways to reduce costs.”
“The legislature gave us a significant assignment,” Pamplin said. “We took the homework assignment very seriously. We felt we were in a position to emerge from the 2019 legislative session in a position of stability. We’d love to be able to break this cycle to start talking about other aspects of services we know the public wants from us, and we hear their frustrations. When we don’t have the revenue, we’re not going to pursue those opportunities.”
Another piece of the agency’s strategy to stabilize its budget was to increase fishing and hunting license fees. SB 5692 and HB 1708 would have done that, but neither bills managed to clear their respective chambers. Had one of them passed, Pamplin said the fee revenue would have “kept the agency whole and we would continue to provide services that we had identified to be at risk,” including catch and release for steelhead on the Skagit River and hatchery production. Although the bills didn’t pass, the operating budget includes $7 million for increased salmon hatchery production to aid southern resident killer whale recovery (page 230), which was recommended by a state task force.
“(We’re) really pleased to see that the legislature endorsed a lot of the recommendations from the governor’s task force,” Pamplin said.
However, in addition to the $6 million gap between what the agency requested and what the state provided, Pamplin says revenue that the agency receives from an 11 percent federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition to fund wildlife conservation is expected to decrease by $5 million for the biennium.
“We’re going to have to look at our entire budget and assess what activities we can continue and see what services we will reduce or eliminate,” he said. “One of the biggest complaints we hear from hunters is (about) access. We had identified that as a priority. We also wanted to improve our capacity to enforce hunting laws. We had also identified and requested funding to improve management of our wildlife areas.”