During this year’s legislative session, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) requested $31 million to help plug a hole in its operating budget resulting from long-term funding cuts. Ultimately, the state only gave the state agency a one-time appropriation of $24 million, while tacking on an additional $9.4 million in fiscal obligations. Now, the state agency is preparing for an unusually large supplemental budget request of $31 million to relieve financial pressure that has delayed staff hires and puts several programs at risk.
At an Aug. 2 meeting of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, Policy Director Nate Pamplin said that the 2019-21 operating budget is “not two steps forward, one step back; it’s one step forward, two steps back for us on how we’re dealing with the structural deficit. We’re putting a lot on the line for a year or two, and that’s where the supplemental budget comes in and (we’re) looking for a pretty heavy request to help us out.”
Starting in 2022, WDFW will need $15.1 million annually to prevent the loss or reduction of programs and services such as catch and release for steelhead on the Skagit River and salmon fishery monitoring on Puget Sound. WDFW is also trying to reduce the number of salmon in the Columbia River consumed by sea lions as part of an overall effort to aid Southern Resident orca recovery.
However, the 2019-21 budget only provides $6.6 million. Two bills introduced in the House and Senate would have provided additional revenue by increasing fishing and hunting fees, but neither legislation cleared the respective chambers.
The agency has struggled with its operating budget since the Great Recession when the legislature cut funding by 31 percent; funding has not yet been fully restored to its prior levels. In the 2017-19 operating budget, the legislature had WDFW create a long-term strategy to balance its budget and reduced any inefficiencies. However, a 2018 report by the Matrix Consulting Firm “did not find signs of gross over-staffing, inefficiency, or significant ways to reduce costs.”
WDFW Budget Officer Morgan Stinson noted its operating budget request “is a large request for an agency our size, especially.” The budget request includes $11.4 for maintenance level spending including the new $9.4 million costs due to other legislation. Another $13.1 million would go toward performance level spending to prevent the loss of high priority services and programs threatened by the budget deficit.
The performance level piece represents a significant increase compared to prior years; in 2016, the agency requested just around $2 million.
However, Stinson said “We have an opportunity – we think that the legislature realizes that they did not fix us in this second fiscal year – that they recognize that we’re short.”
WDFW Legislative Director Raquel Crosier held a similar view of the situation at the Aug. 2 meeting, telling commissioners that increased revenue and new revenue sources could provide that extra funding. She added that the agency will also be taking advantage of the upcoming election cycle. “We’re going to be getting out talking to legislators this fall. They know our budget issues. The size of our structural deficit is so large it is considered an emergency, and they (state lawmakers) see our budget as one of their number one priorities for making a hole in the 2020 supplemental (budget), so we’re excited about that.”
WDFW will also be pushing for several bills that failed to clear this session, including HB 1662 and its companion legislation, SB 5696, that would eliminate the payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) for WDFW land within counties. Under that policy, counties may accept payment instead of taxes, but if they do they cannot keep fines collected for WDFW violations. The bills would eliminate that option and change the PILT rate.