IF&W Finances Are a Disaster
After ending the last fiscal year on June 30, 2009, with a $450,000 deficit, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is off to a disastrous start in the first two months of the state’s new fiscal year.
A report provided to the legislature’s Fish and Wildlife Committee by Gilbert Bilodeau, deputy director of the Natural Resources Service Center, disclosed that the department fell $637,581 short of budgeted revenues in July and August.
Most alarming, budgeted revenue from the sale of licenses, permits, and fees was off by a staggering $2,573,878. Although some projected revenue lines were up, particularly snowmobile registrations that exceeded projections by $208,862, of the thirteen lines in the revenue side of the department’s budget, eight fell short of projections.
It is too early to panic, certainly, but if license sales lag in 2009, you have to be worried about next year’s sales when the largest single-year hike in fees in history takes effect.
In addition to the substantial hike in hunting and fishing fees enacted in June, the legislature also voted to sweep (steal) 5 percent from the dedicated accounts of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, including the boating access fund and the snowmobile trail fund.
The new state budget includes authority to sweep 5 percent from every IF&W dedicated fund each year to help balance the state’s budget. That move effectively leaves the department with no public financial support. Sportsmen will pony up more than $38 million for IF&W in FY 10 that began on July 1, 2009.
Well, maybe. And maybe not, if there is a lot of pushback on the fee hikes and sales of licenses continue to fall short of projections.
Also, as part of the most significant tax reform in three decades, the legislature broadened the sales tax to include hundreds of new items, including recreational activities. Maine’s 5 percent sales tax will now be levied on guided hunting and fishing trips, gun repairs, vehicle repairs, and a whole lot more. And the tax on meals and lodging was increased to 8.5 percent despite the strong opposition of the state’s tourism industry.
Petition signatures have been submitted to put the tax reform measure on hold until the people vote on it in a referendum next June. Maine’s Secretary of State will rule soon on the validity of those signatures. Early indications are that a sufficient number of signatures were gathered to suspend the tax reform proposal and send it back to the legislature in January. Legislators will have the option of repealing the tax reform package or sending it out to a referendum vote. You can wager your bets now that it will go to referendum. That’s a sure thing.
Looking forward, in 2010 the legislature will face a monstrous budget gap ($200 million in the current fiscal year and growing every month) and we expect many unpleasant proposals to surface to resolve the large state budget gap as well as IF&W’s financial difficulties.
Presumably additional fee hikes for sportsmen are off the table, and no funding is available from the General Fund (tax money), so cuts are the only feasible alternative left at IF&W. Given that the department has about the same number of employees it had thirty years ago, and the agency has been plagued with additional duties over those thirty years, something will have to give (and be given up).
This matters to all Mainers because the department’s duties include many services to nonsportsmen, from habitat protection for songbirds to search and rescue of hikers.
The long-term solution, if we indeed value these services, is to provide the department with a stable source of public funding to complement the revenue it gets from sportsmen.
That won’t happen in 2010. Expect a smaller department and diminished services for all of us.