Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Money: going, going, gone.
They can’t scrape together a nickel, and now, as the state’s budget slips further and further into deficit, the prospects for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s getting any new public support from the state’s General Fund this session appear to be long gone.
Actually, this beleaguered agency has never received the public funding it needs to fulfill its mission for all the people of Maine, even when the state budget was flush. This session, the term “flush” is only relevant to where the entire state budget is going.
Things started to go badly for DIF&W right from the get-go of this legislative session, when the agency was required to contribute $188,000 of cuts to fill a $25 million funding gap in the current year’s budget.
The agency met the target with a couple dozen small reductions, including heating for a game warden’s home and eliminating the annual printing of law changes. One of the biggest items, $10,831, would be achieved by eliminating advertising in The Maine Sportsman and the Northwoods Sporting Journal. Sure, when your products aren’t selling, the thing to do is reduce advertising!
Not willing to go quietly, the legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee endorsed a bill a few weeks ago calling for $100,000 in General Fund money to control coyote predation to help rebuild the state’s diminished deer herd. This week, that bill is being returned by the House and Senate to the committee, in recognition of the impossibility of squeezing any tax money out of the Appropriations Committee, already nearly bled dry and facing several more rounds of budget cuts, each one more dire and difficult than the last.
The IFW Committee decided today to schedule a work session to examine all of DIF&W’s funding needs, and possibly dip into the agency’s surplus funds to pay for some of those needs. The agency’s carrying account – essentially its savings accrued mostly by keeping 20 percent of its staff positions vacant – now totals $1.2 million.
Today’s work session included a long discussion of a proposal to provide free fishing licenses for nonresident kids, at a cost to DIF&W of $65,000. The department was neutral on the proposal at the public hearing, but said today that it could absorb the cost.
Senator Tom Saviello said he could not support a law change like this that will cost the agency $65,000, when they couldn’t afford $900 for an important piece of equipment for the deer plan. Most committee members agreed. So they set this proposal aside for the later discussion of all the agency’s needs and the money available in the carrying account.
The committee is also holding a couple of IFW funding bills, both of them calling for General Fund appropriations for DIF&W’s Maine Game Plan for Deer. Two weeks ago the agency’s John Pratte told the committee the deer plan needed an additional $650,000 per year to be fully implemented. Some legislators appear ready to say to DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock: ok, go for it. Take that $650,000 out of your surplus and show us what you can do.
Others are much more cautious, and will insist on looking at all the agency’s needs, not just deer.
In the meantime, a separate effort has been launched by Senate President Kevin Raye to find new revenue sources for DIF&W. Participating in discussions with Raye are the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Maine Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, and the Maine Tourism Association.
This group has asked DIF&W for a definitive list of its funding needs, including landowner relations, hatcheries, and deer, and is looking at a variety of possible sources for that money, including Tax Increment Financing (TIF) payments by wind power projects, energy corridor payments by utilities, and the sales tax on outdoor gear. The Taxation Committee hosts a hearing today (February 14) on SAM’s bill to direct TIF money to DIF&W. That bill is also sponsored by Senator Raye.
While all of this is a long shot, these participants deserve credit for not giving up the fight.