Maine State Budget Crisis and the Environment
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that the latest round of bad news about the state budget didn’t cause much of a stir last week. We’re all numb from the steady drumbeat of bad financial news, as every newscast announces billions in bailouts and tens of thousands of lost jobs. So Gov. Baldacci’s plan for getting through the next six months hardly registers on the Richter scale unless you’re one of those 40 unfortunates who actually lose their state jobs (the other lost positions are vacant).
In a “normal” budget crisis anywhere, there’s a certain protocol we’ve all come to expect. From hints and rumors that things don’t look good, we progress to dire predictions of the end of the world as we know it (the football team disbanded, the art teacher banished and the lights turned off at the elementary school). Then there are months of wrangling over which of two options will gain the upper hand – cutting services or raising taxes, fees or whatever you choose to call them. Those who care most can jump in to try to influence that outcome by testifying, protesting and pointing out the errors in the budget plan. When all is said and done, the world doesn’t end after all. Things just get adjusted, for better and worse.
I’ve gone through this process so many times that the words “budget crisis” have less effect on my heart rate than “cold coffee.” (I hate cold coffee.) Maybe that’s because I’ve spent too much time following the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife budget, where the crisis is an annual event, like the opening of the fishing season or the first pickup crashing through thin ice.
But jaded as I am, I catch myself wondering if a worldwide financial panic might actually change things, even at IFW. When people are worried about putting food on the table and staying warm, bad things can happen to less urgent priorities like fish and wildlife. I don’t want anyone to be hungry or cold, but I also don’t want to wake up in a decade and wonder how we could have been so short-sighted.
So I’m wondering what happens if the state’s natural resource agencies get even less support. Environmental Protection, Conservation, Agriculture, Marine Resources, and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife – combined – only got about 2.3 percent of the last state budget. I don’t try to keep up with all the numbers, because most of what’s proposed today will end up on the cutting room floor. But I looked at the proposed “reductions” at IFW – $2.4 million each fiscal year – just to get the flavor of the current crisis.
The cuts seem fairly normal for the start of a budget crisis. Yes, it’s a little unusual to propose cutting the deputy commissioner’s position, but routine to propose cutting eight district wardens and two sergeants. As the old saying goes, the best predictor of the future is the past and IFW officials have said no game warden has been laid off in the history of the department. Other proposals seem fraught with legal repercussions, such as the elimination of printed copies of recreational vehicle laws.
However, if the financial outlook really is the worst since the Great Depression, I can imagine layoffs happening and printed rule books lost. I can’t imagine a Maine hunting season without tagging stations. Yes, other states have online registration of big game, but where’s the fun in that? Bragging, comparing, weighing your deer, sharing information with your neighbors at the tagging station is a major part of hunting. And how would online tagging affect Maine’s intricate management system, which is based on detailed and accurate information about deer and deer hunters?
“We still don’t know what that means and for my program that would be a tremendous problem to overcome,” said Lee Kantar, the state wildlife biologist who specializes in deer and moose. “Our relationship with our public is absolutely critical. My going down to the store and talking to hunters and looking at deer and moose is an incredibly important function of our management system.”
I asked Kantar if he thought this crisis was any worse than usual. “I think it is,” he answered. “The economic times are, you could say, dire . . . We even have two biologists here – right here – that are slated to be cut. One is our game bird biologist, who just got back on, for less than a year, and that position is slated to be cut. That’s a human being, Kelsey Sullivan.”
Of course, one way out is to raise license and registration fees. A “sizeable” increase already is rumored and sportsmen’s groups are gearing up for the usual battle to prevent or at least minimize it. Another – and this is the Holy Grail for IFW budget wonks – is to find some way to wring money from people who don’t hunt or fish. Such measures, which target kayakers, canoeists, hikers etc., are often proposed, but, so far, always defeated. Another avenue discussed by the more noble among us is voluntary contributions, but it’s been tried and there are always a shortage of noble volunteers.
At least IFW has – so far – a level beyond which its funding cannot fall. A constitutional amendment insures money that IFW collects from “license and permit fees, fines, the sale, lease or rental of property, penalties, and all other revenue sources” must stay in the department.” Federal matching funds also depend upon revenues being spent on programs that benefit hunting, fishing and wildlife. The feds don’t fool around either; they audit state fish and wildlife departments to insure that money isn’t diverted. The other natural resource agencies are not so lucky.
So there certainly are hard days ahead. But when all is said and done, the world won’t end. Things will just get adjusted, for better and worse. I just hope the worst isn’t too bad.
Roberta Scruggs writes about Maine's environment.