(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)
MONEY MATTERS: WDFW says increased expenses incurred by legislature piled on to department’s growing budget woes…
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has been operating with a structural deficit since 2008, and, due to its complicated funding model and chronic underfunding, is asking the state for $26 million from the state’s supplemental budget to right the ship.
How did the state agency get to this point is something many have asked as budget numbers can be both daunting and complicated.
Government funding is complex enough, but WDFW does take the cake sometimes when it comes to just how their funding model works.
According to Nate Pamplin, WDFW Director of Budget and Government Affairs, the budget shortfall arose from a variety of reasons.
Just what kind of money does WDFW spend? The department’s 2017-19 operating budget was $437.6 million and included 1,514 full-time-equivalent positions. WDFW had 27 percent or $118 million of their budget come from the State Wildlife Account which includes things like hunting and fishing fees. 21 percent or $93.3 million of it comes from the State General Fund. 27 percent or $118.8 million came from the Federal General Fund, 15 percent or $63.9 million from the local general fund and 10 percent or $43.6 million from other funding.
This size of budget is on par with other large state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Ecology.
With its budget coming from these different sources, WDFW only gets a part of their funding from the actual state coffers, despite being authorized in the budget to spend more in each of the other categories. Most the of the time, the Department cannot simply increase the federal or local grants to match the new costs approved by the legislature. And only the legislature can adjust hunting and fishing license fees, creating the gap between approved costs that are not backed by revenue.
“Essentially you have the state set our budget but then they give us about a quarter on the dollar of what we spend,” Pamplin said.
Working on a two-year cycle, WDFW is at the mercy of the state legislature and what it wants to do in terms of funding.
The Great Recession from 2007 through 2009 kicked off this issue. The department’s general fund appropriation was reduced by $38 million, and since then the state has passed four rounds of cost of living for state employees but has not made the budget adjustment’s for WDFW’s ongoing funding.
These cost of living bumps increased expenditures by $29.7 million.
The agency’s last fee increase in 2011 raised funding by $8 million but left a structural deficit.
Washington’s unique and diverse terrain and wildlife mean that the department has a great deal of responsibilities from hatcheries, wildlife management, private land access and much more.
“The cuts because of the Great Recession has just exacerbated since then,” Pamplin said. “We have not been funded at a level to meet our costs for several bienniums.”
In 2017, the legislature provided the agency with $10 million and authorization for an audit. This identified shortfalls because of legislative moves that were never funded and a lack of communication and performance monitoring. It also asked the agency to reduce the complexity of its account structure and increase budget transparency.
WDFW asked for $31 million in 2019 to fill the structural deficit and $30 million more in enhancements to the department. They asked that three-fourths of the request come from the State General Fund and one-fourth from a license fee increase.
The proposed 15 percent fee increase to fishermen and hunters was not passed. Permanent re-authorization of the Columbia River salmon and steelhead endorsement, which brought in $3.3 million every two years, failed as well. WDFW also said that $9.4 million in additional costs not backed by revenue were passed by the legislature, which further widened the gap that the Department faces.
While WDFW said it would operate as normal and not plan cutbacks because of the budget shortfall this year, they could see cuts next year if the legislature doesn’t fix this before they adjourn in mid-March. The areas that could see this would be in hunter instruction courses, wildlife conflict work, fisheries, hatcheries, reduction of fishing monitoring on the Columbia River, inspections for shellfish commerce, forest health treatments and a variety of partnerships concerning salmon.
The WDFW website also said that the WDFW State Wildlife Account Cash Balance would be out of money by March of 2020 and while it would go back in the black for much of 2021 it would then dip further in the red for that year once costs hit.
WDFW said that since 2017, it has reviewed its finances and worked on cutting $2 million in ongoing expenses.
Several one-time funding patches have expired, federal funding has also dipped and the requests being made of the department are growing as well.
Governor Jay Inslee’s proposed budget doesn’t fully fund the agency on an on-going basis, meaning the WDFW would be in a similar spot next legislative session if the legislature adopted the Governor’s budget.
The department said that the $26 million requested would fix budget shortfalls using general fund money and not raise hunter and fishing fees. Not addressing this, however, would further push the issue down the road.
Recently, more than 45 groups have presented a petition asking the state to fund WDFW to the levels it is asking.
But if changes are not made, the department feels that it will have to implement deep and wide-reaching cuts that could affect many residents around Washington.