DNR Budget Crunch Threatens WMAs, Hatchery

Worst case looms as state revenues sag.

Steve Burch | September 23, 2008

When state revenue figures for August were posted showing a 7 percent drop from the same period last year, there were those who hoped that perhaps WRD could skimp by with only a slight cut in people and programs this year and next. Perhaps this most recent financial storm could be weathered without too much pain.

Those hopes faded fast when budget watchers realized that the current budget was based on an estimated growth of 4 percent this year over last — the short-fall in August was not 7 percent, but 11 percent.

Then, in the first two weeks of September, when Wall Street melted down and Hurricane Ike drove gas prices to record highs, faces in state government became grim.

Budget hearings and discussions are going on in executive and legislative parts of the government right now.

What seems apparent at this point is that the 6 percent budget reduction will go forward very soon and that the cut to 10 percent may be delayed until the legislature convenes in January, but will occur — likely by next April.

A 10 percent cut means the loss of more than 69 people, one third of trout production, 115 fewer trout streams stocked, no WRD presence on federal WMAs, and the loss of 176,000 acres of leased WMA land.

Rangers with old trucks and only $300 for gas a month, and that is before these cuts begin. Which WMAs are about to vanish? Close Moccasin Creek Hatchery?

Sportsmen suffer double cuts compared to other government programs because sportsmen pay directly for WRD services. Yet sportsmen’s dollars are treated no differently than any other dollar in the state treasury when the time comes to cut.

Because sportsmen directly account for more than two-thirds of WRD’s state-budget dollars, only one-third of WRD’s funds should be exposed to the current round of cuts. That is only fair.

Most legislators hope to cut in lower priority areas — one producing no public out-cry. Sportsmen need to scream right now at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. The number is (404) 656-3220.

Most legislators also believe that WRD ranks low on the priority scale when legislators try to balance the state need with available state funding.

Recreation — which is how both legislators and DNR view sportsman’s programs — takes a back seat to things like education, public health and safety, and many other state functions.

Even within DNR, out of the seven missions DNR identifies for itself, hunting and fishing ranks last.

The most recent example of the effect of this low ranking by DNR is the poor handling of the hunting and fishing license sale decision that transferred the cost of license sales from the state to sportsmen without ever asking the state to fund an in-house program or asking sportsmen what they thought of the plan.

Since learning of the plan, sportsmen have been outraged. DNR has conceded that they might have handled it better, but not much else. Because of this DNR action, sportsmen will spend more on licenses but receive less in program services — and this before the current round of cuts takes its bite.

Funding WRD sportsmen’s programs is important to sportsmen. However, the current model of funding — license fees going to the legislature to be allocated back through DNR to WRD for sportsman’s programs — exposes sportsmen and our programs to poor treatment from both the state and from DNR.

Future license increases should be structured to avoid this double penalty sportsmen pay and secure funds for sportsmen’s programs.

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