Who Gets $4 Million Of Sportmen’s Dollars?

Sportsmen supported a 1987 license-fee increase to buy WMA land. The bills have been paid, so who is spending your money?

Daryl Kirby | January 2, 2007

Impact on Sportsmen of 1987 License-Fee Increase

The Game Management, Fisheries, and Law Enforcement sections of WRD, departments with long histories of dedicated, professional service to wildlife, fisheries and sportsmen in our state, don’t have the resources and manpower they once had to do the work that sportsmen depend on them to do.

Yearly budget cuts have meant positions formerly held by biologists, wildlife and fisheries technicians and law-enforcement rangers remain vacant. The staff that remains has more work, yet fewer resources and older equipment to get the job done.

Add $4.5 million a year to WRD’s budget, and it would sure help — a lot. It would represent a 16 percent increase in state funds going to WRD’s budget.

According to figures obtained by GON from an open-records request to the state, that money, sportsmen’s money from license fees, is available.

The $4.5 million a year is generated by a 1987 fee increase for hunting and fishing licenses, an increase championed by sportsmen as a way to help preserve places where future generations would have places to hunt and fish. Once the fee increase was passed, the state issued two $15 million bonds to begin purchasing property.

The result was more than 50,000 acres of WMA land — all or parts of Big Hammock, Bullard Creek, Hannahatchee, Horse Creek, John’s Mountain, Mayhaw, Ocmulgee, Sheffield, Tuckahoe and Yuchi wildlife management areas (WMAs).

Lands Purchased with Money from 1987 License-Fee Increase

The money from the license-fee increase was used to pay off the debt service on those bonds. According to state documents, the total debt service on the two $15 million bonds, including interest, was $54 million. Already, the 1987 license-fee increase has generated $83 million for the state.

So if the bonds are paid in full, what happens now to that $4.5 million extra generated every year by the 1987 license-fee increase?

For most sportsmen, the answer to that question is simple. It should be added to WRD’s budget and used for hunting and fishing projects.

Whether that actually happens could easily be lost in the murky waters of how hunting and fishing license fees are collected by the state and put into the General Fund, then allocated by the General Assembly and the governor’s office to WRD.

License fees generate a total of about $20 million a year, and WRD has been receiving about $28 million a year from state funds.

The $4.5 million a year now not being used to pay off bonds could easily be absorbed by the state. WRD’s allocation could remain at $28 million in state funds with less money from the General Fund being used, with sportsmen then picking up the tab for a larger piece of the WRD budget.

Further muddying the waters is the possibility that the state bean counters have already been giving back to WRD some of that $4.5 million generated each year by the 1987 license-fee increase.

A WRD document titled “Net Revenue From License Sales After Bond Payments” lists the bond payments for the 1987 land-acquisition program at about $2.8 million a year. A note at the bottom of that document regarding the 1987 bonds states, “Two bonds were sold — $15,000,000 each. Some of the license money is used to retire bond debt; the rest is appropriated back to us.”

If those figures are correct, and if the state has already been appropriating the excess money to WRD, an argument could be made that the “found money” from the 1987 license-fee increase is more like $2.8 million instead of $4.5 million.

However, sportsmen can still counter that argument and stake a claim to the entire $4.5 million. While WRD gets $8 million more in state money than what license fees generate, the general public gets far more value than $8 million in the form of time and resources of WRD. A department that used to direct the vast majority of its resources to hunting and fishing interests now directs far more time and resources to the general public — bike riders, horse folks, trail walkers, bird watchers, old ladies with bats in their attics, bears in the backyard. In August, I was speaking with a WRD game management region supervisor, who after interrupting our conversation for the third time in 10 minutes to answer the phone, made the remark, “I can’t wait until hunting season.” He said during the summer his staff is overwhelmed with calls that have nothing to do with hunting and fishing. Hunting season would actually mean fewer folks were using the WMAs in his region.

A document obtained from DNR says that sportsmen paid off the 1987 land-acquisition program .. and then some. According to the document, sportsmen overpaid by $29.1 million even as the manpower and resources of the Game Management, Fisheries and Law Enforcement sections of WRD suffered significant reductions.

WRD apparently agrees with the concept that since the 1987 bonds have been paid in full that they should receive the full $4.5 million of sportsmen’s money. A September 1 memo from WRD Assistant Director Todd Holbrook to WRD Director Dan Forster states:

“Earlier this week you requested that I take a detailed look at our plan for use of revenues that become available following retirement of the 1987 bonds. As you are aware, the Division should receive an additional $4,537,851 in projected hunting and fishing license revenues beginning in FY 2008.”

Holbrook then details what the department’s priorities are with the $4.5 million per year budget windfall.

Priority 1: Fund a significant chunk of the effort to purchase a tract of Paulding County WMA that is threatened by development. Cost — $1.3 million per year for 20 years.

Priority 2: New hunting and fishing licensing computer system. Cost — $1.4 million per year for five years.

Priority 3: New vehicles. Cost — $455,000 a year for five years.

Priority 4: Create three new IT positions in WRD — hire a director of IT, an IT tech-support position and a webmaster. Cost — $263,000 annually.

Priority 5: Service and maintenance of vehicles. Cost — $1.2 million annually.

At first blush that list doesn’t seem to include many tasty carrots for sportsmen, except for vehicles — we’ve actually had to help jump-start a beat-up old LE truck in the GON parking lot. Hard to catch a night-hunter when the truck won’t start. Buying Paulding Forest was something we expected was in the works already. Creating three new IT positions in WRD may be exactly what the department needs, but with that kind of money for positions a wish list for more LE rangers and wildlife or fisheries techs is far more tasty.

Regardless of how the $4.5 million is spent, the first concern of sportsmen should be to see that our money is directed to WRD, the agency charged with serving us, and not absorbed into the General Fund.

The GONetwork is exploring the idea of supporting the introduction and passage of a resolution by the General Assembly that assures the $4.5 million generated each year by the 1987 license-fee increase is appropriated to WRD above its current budget levels. The GONetwork is asking sportsmen for their opinion on this issue and two other issues, and GON has included those questions on this month’s cover (only on magazines sent to subscribers, the newsstand issues won’t include the questions).

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