After years of trying to reestablish its pre-Great Recession funding levels, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is looking at potential cuts up to 15 percent, as directed by the state Office of Financial Management. Although its draft 2021-23 operating budget requests roughly $15 million in additional funding, the $24 million in proposed cuts could reduce both salmon and trout hatchery production – and with it, fishing opportunities. However, some WFDW Commission members at a July 31 meeting urged caution in taking that approach, fearful that it could lead to further revenue loss as a result of fewer recreational fishing opportunities.
Under the proposed budget reduction plan, six salmon and steelhead hatcheries would be closed, while four trout hatcheries would be closed. The result would be a 7.2 percent and 12.3 percent reduction in statewide salmon and trout production, respectively. As part of the budget cuts, hatchery maintenance and repairs for critical infrastructure would be reduced by 32 percent.
WDFW financial challenges first started in 2011 when the state legislature reduced funding by 31 percent. In the years following, the state agency sought a variety of ways to close its operating budget revenue gap and at one point contemplated raising recreational fees. In 2019, the legislature made a one-time $24 million appropriation in the 2019-21 operating budget to help WDFW fill a $30 million funding shortfall.
In addition to a potential 15 percent spending cut, the agency is facing significant revenue decline for several accounts. As a result, Budget and Government Affairs Director Nate Pamplin told commissioners that they’re actually seeking a drop in spending authority from the legislature.
“We have essentially too much permission from the legislature…to spend money that we’re actually not bringing in,” Pamplin said. “I think it really does help with the transparency about what’s really going on in our budget” to have that level be more accurate and aligned with the incoming revenue.
Commissioner Kate Thorburn noted that requesting a drop in their spending authority “does tell our appropriators, ‘Hey (it’s) great that you’re telling us to spend this money, but we don’t have it.’ We’ve seen that budget after budget.”
Of the proposed $24 million in spending cuts, the most significant reductions would be for fisheries opportunity and management ($5.7 million) and salmon and steelhead hatchery production ($5.2 million). Trout hatchery production funding would be cut by $2 million, while the salmon hatchery reduction would impact Chinook, Coho and Chum production.
However, several commissioners were apprehensive about the fiscal blowback from this approach. Commissioner Dave Graybill said fewer fishing opportunities “reduce our ability to sell licenses when we reduce the amount of fish being produced both inland and on Puget Sound and…the coast. Wherever these occur it’s going to create ill will.”
Commissioner Don McIsaac said “why cut something that’s going to generate sales tax? The lack of sales tax is why we’re in this problem. (We) cut $2 million and then cut another $5 million because of the impacts to the state on sales tax.”
The WDFW Commission’s next meeting is Aug. 21. WDFW staff will submit the agency’s budget requests to the state Office of Financial Management in September.