OLYMPIA — These are challenging times for leaders of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.
And they are going to get more challenging in the coming months.
Costs are rising to manage fisheries, protect endangered species, conserve habitats and compensate roughly 1,500-plus employees.
But revenues needed to pay the tab are not.
Receipts from sales of hunting and fishing licenses — a vital source of revenue — are down as fewer and fewer people engage in those activities. Federal dollars aren’t enough to cover increased regulatory responsibilities.
And though the state coffers seem flush in this economy — and already provide a fifth of the agency’s budget — lawmakers are reticent to use the general fund as a bailout.
Department leaders had to act last year to plug a $27 million hole and did so with spending cuts, reserves and a one-time boost from state coffers. They are still looking at $3 million more in reductions before this budget ends in June 2019. The moves could affect programs involving habitat monitoring, trout hatcheries and volunteer education.
At the same time, the agency faces another $30 million gap in the 2019-21 budget. This one’s got agency officials and the Fish and Wildlife Commission seriously concerned.
They figure they’re going to need to ask lawmakers to either hike license fees, provide a larger allotment from the general fund — or both — to avoid slashing programs serving hunters, anglers, and land managers.
“It’s uncomfortable to see these programs at risk. Thirty million is a significant cut,” said Nathan Pamplin, who is policy director for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the point man for the budget planning effort. “But we’re intending to do everything we can to maintain these critical services.”
At the Legislature’s directive, the agency is undertaking a deep-dive into its operations. It reassessed its organizational structure and is crafting a long-term funding strategy.
And it’s in the midst of putting together the agency’s request for the 2019-21 budget that will be submitted to Gov. Jay Inslee in September.
Exactly what will be in it is getting developed with the help of a few outsiders.
The agency has enlisted 20 people familiar with hunting, fishing, managing resources and negotiating the state’s political process to be a sounding board regarding possible approaches to erase the $30 million gap and even enhance some programs.
This group first met in December and most recently gathered Wednesday in Ellensburg. In that time, fish-and-wildlife officials have laid bare the elements of the fiscal challenge they face.
“I’ve never seen an agency be this transparent with their budget,” said member Jason Callahan, director of government relations for the Washington Forest Protection Association. “It was like, ‘Here’s our Legos.’ Then they threw them on the floor and asked us to help put them back together.”
On Wednesday, they got a clearer view of what programs might get shaved. And they continued hashing out ideas for raising revenue. Many of them require the Legislature’s approval such as increasing fees or dedicating portions of the sales tax, or business and occupation tax, to this agency.
Members of the advisory group decided to set up two subcommittees. One is going to ponder what might go into a fee increase bill should it be part of the agency’s request. The other group will consider what’s politically possible in the 2019 legislative session.
A good outcome, Callahan said, would be no reduction in service.
The department’s current budget is $437.6 million.
Its largest block of dollars is the state Wildlife Account, which is made up of 26 sources of funds. Most of the money comes from recreational fishing and hunting licenses. There’s also revenue from sale of specialty license plates, turkey tags, duck and bird stamps, and transaction fees associated with a registration system.
The department expects to bring in $118 million for this account, of which $88 million will be from license fees.
About the same sum, $118 million, is expected from federal grants and mitigation contracts. Roughly 21 percent, or $93 million, comes from the state’s general fund. The remainder comes through contracts with local government entities and other small state accounts.
Most of the concern is on the Wildlife Account, which is most directly impacted by the decline in the number of hunters and anglers.
There has been an 11 percent drop in state hunting license holders over the past 10 years. Overall, only 3 percent of the state’s population hunts compared to 4 percent a decade ago, according to figures provided by Pamplin.
The picture for fishing isn’t much brighter. The number of anglers dropped from 845,111 in 2007 to 759,325 in 2017.
Lawmakers last increased license fees in 2011. They turned down the agency’s request for a hike in 2017. They had concerns it would further erode support for fishing. They also wanted the department to focus on getting its fiscal health in order.
Advisory group members are warming to the idea of a small increase in 2019. One scenario presented to the board envisioned an increase raising about one-third of the sum.
Pamplin said there is a limit to any increase.
“We don’t want to price people out of participation,” Pamplin said. “Nor do we want the problem to be solved by hunters and fishers alone.”
A draft of the budget request is expected to be considered by the Fish and Wildlife Commission in June. There will be opportunities for the public to comment on the proposal before commissioners adopt the final version in August. Then it will go to the governor.