Budget cuts could hit fish and game agencies

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State wildlife agencies are bracing for a sequestration-related financial hit to their budgets.

Nearly all state fish and wildlife agencies get at least a portion of their funding through grants or pass-along taxes from the federal government. For example, federal excise taxes are collected on the sale of fishing and hunting equipment and distributed proportionately to state fish and wildlife management agencies.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies also assist states with a variety of fish and wildlife conservation programs via grants.

Those funding sources, even the excise taxes, are at least partially vulnerable to sequestration.

In Washington, the across the board spending cuts could slice $3 million from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s budget. Idaho stands to lose an estimated $850,000.

But not all of the cuts will be permanent. Payment of excise taxes will be reduced. However, they are dedicated funds that are held in trust by the federal government and distributed to states.

“During the sequester, people get a lower appropriation of the trust funds but it’s temporary,” said Michael Pearson, chief of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s administration bureau. “Those funds can’t be used for anything else. Instead of giving it to us now they are going to give us a 5 percent cut and appropriate it to us in fiscal year 2014, so it’s a delay.”

Jennifer Quann, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Olympia, said the agency has received about 40 percent of its share from excise taxes this year. It would normally get the remaining 60 percent if and when Congress passes a budget for fiscal year 2013, or renews a continuing resolution that is funding the federal government.

With sequestration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which distributes the money, is expected to hold back about 5 percent. The holdback will be given to the states in the fiscal year 2014 allocation.

Even though the money will be there, albeit late, Quann said the delay could have real effects.

“Depending on how big that cut looks, you could impact seasonal work,” she said.

But Idaho’s Pearson said even with the delay, he expects the payment to be larger this year than last year because of the booming sales of firearms and ammunition. Guns and ammo have been selling at an accelerated pace because of consumer nervousness over possible gun control legislation and the 2012 election.

“The increase is going to be more than the sequester,” he said.

Both states also receive money through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program known as State Wildlife Grants. Idaho could take a $30,000 hit and Washington is bracing for a loss of about $62,000.

Quann said the agency is closely watching Congress to see if there are any agreements to ease the pain of sequestration. She said such a deal could be bad for fish and wildlife agencies if Congress gives federal bureaucrats discretion to decide how to implement budget cuts rather than making them across the board. Most managers, she said, would choose to cut money that doesn’t effect federal employees. That could mean grants or other federal funding that goes to state fish and wildlife programs would take an even bigger hit.

“At least for natural resource funding, if cuts need to occur, across the board cuts would be a better outcome.”

She also said more cuts could be on the horizon.

“Right now it’s really a big guessing game. If some of the bigger reforms don’t come to Medicare or Social Security, our biggest fear is that $3 million is an underestimate and that would be a result of more targeted cuts as opposed to across the board cuts.”

The states are also dealing with uncertainty over the length of sequestration and whether or not a budget agreement will restore the cuts. They are not even sure just how big the cuts will be. Pearson said that makes it difficult to take steps to deal with the loss of funding.

“We are operating on the premise it’s going to be 5 percent and watching it very intently to see what action Congress is going to take for the long term and than having to deal with it at that time,” he said. “It’s hard to find a solution until you know what the cuts are going to be.”