Game and Fish license fee increase defeated
by Dustin Bleizeffer
— February 11, 2014
After a year of organizing and lobbying, a new coalition of sportsmen groups saw one of its key pieces of legislation defeated on the first day of the Wyoming Legislature’s 2014 budget session, which commenced on Monday.
House Bill 31 would have increased Wyoming Game and Fish license fees (exempting youth licenses) by 10 percent — potentially the first license fee increase in four years. It failed to get the votes needed for introduction, with a vote of 26 ayes and 32 nays.
“I’m disappointed,” said Catherine Thagard, coordinator for the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance. “But, from my perspective, this is just the beginning of the discussion. … We need sustainable support of Wyoming’s wildlife resource.”
Another bill, Senate File 45, “Game and fish department-general fund budget requests,” passed introduction in the Senate on Monday. The bill would shift some or all of the cost of the department’s grizzly bear management program and the cost of health insurance increases for department employees to the state’s General Fund. By doing so, it could help free up $5 million to $7 million in the portion of the Game and Fish budget that is supported by license fees.
A draft of SF 45 in the interim also included shifting the cost of elk feeding grounds to the General Fund, but that portion was stripped before introduction to the Senate — a move that was pushed by the Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife organization. That group has also vehemently opposed proposals for license fee increases during the past two years, insisting that a fee increase cannot be justified until the Game and Fish department clearly states its priorities, its goals, and conducts a thorough cost-benefit analysis of all its programs.
“It’s not that we think they’re not accountable. It’s that they’re very entrenched about the way they do things,” Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife executive director Bob Wharff told WyoFile. “Before you go to the trough for more money, you need to make sure you’re being as efficient as you can.”
Wyoming lawmakers imposed $6.6 million in combined cuts to the Game and Fish Department’s 2013 and 2014 budgets — without the offset of a license fee increase — resulting in the closure of public lands access and youth recruitment programs, and resulting in a smaller staff. The cuts, in addition to pending cuts for 2015 and beyond, may seriously hamstring the amount of in-the-field enforcement and biology research, potentially diminishing Wyoming’s wildlife resource, which sportsmen argue is at the core of Wyoming’s $2.9 billion annual tourism and travel industry, according to Thagard.
Thagard said the budget cuts and fierce opposition to license fee increases — a valuable revenue driver for the department — were the driving force behind the formation of the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance in 2013; to invest in a department responsible for maintaining wildlife resources that are under increasing pressure. “We’re all sitting down at the table together to work on this jointly, because this matters to all of us. … Sportsmen have united in Wyoming to speak to this issue.”
A prominent oil and gas producer in Wyoming, Encana, even joined the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance’s chorus for “sufficient” monetary support (possibly including increased fees) of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, saying that prudent and measurable wildlife habitat monitoring and conservation is key to the approval of continued oil and gas development in the state.
Thagard and her organization point to a new poll that suggests most Wyomingites are in favor of increasing hunting and fishing license fees to help the state’s Game and Fish department deal with increasing budget and wildlife management pressures. According to polling results by DFM Research of St. Paul, Minn., some 63 percent of Wyoming residents supported the proposed — and now defeated — legislation to increase license fees for hunters and anglers. The poll also concluded that 61 percent support the goal of SF 45 to allocate General Funds to pay for grizzly management and health insurance for Game and Fish employees rather than using sportsmen’s dollars.
“What we heard from lawmakers, especially last year when the fee increase bill was voted down, was that sportsmen don’t want to pay more. But what the poll shows is that sportsmen understand the importance of funding for wildlife,” said Thagard.
The poll, conducted by DFM Research, was commissioned by the George B. Storer Foundation, a supporter of conservation and sportsmen’s organizations in Wyoming, including the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance. For full disclosure, the George B. Storer Foundation is among several foundational supporters of WyoFile, a nonprofit news organization. The poll surveyed 550 Wyoming residents statewide between Nov. 15 and Dec. 7, 2013. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.
Thagard said she’s confident, despite Monday’s setback, that Wyoming citizens will eventually succeed in increasing support of the department’s budget needs and revenue-raising ability, noting that tourism, agriculture and many other entities understand that Wyoming’s wildlife resources require an investment that returns a much bigger economic payoff. “We need to look at longterm solutions. We don’t need to be going through this every year.”
Wharff said his organization’s opposition to increased license fees isn’t well understood by the general public. “They (license fee increase supporters) either don’t understand it or they’re afraid to do the cost-benefit analysis.”
According to state law, the Game and Fish commission sets spending policy for the game species portion of the agency’s budget, which comes from about $60 million in license fees and other revenue. The state General Fund pays $9.5 million in non-game species funding out of the $71.5 million budget for the agency. However, the agency can’t raise user license fees without the approval of the legislature, which, some say, makes it difficult to keep up with rising costs.
— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. You can reach him at (307) 577-6069 or (307) 267-3327, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer
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