At its most basic, a state department budget is a numbers game — an agency knows how much it will cost to fulfill each part of its mission, and is told how much money is actually available.
Plug in those numbers, but have a contingency plan ready for emergencies requiring funds to be cut. Make sure you identify what goes on the chopping block, then see which constituencies yell the loudest.
But it’s hard to win a numbers game when you don’t know and can’t predict what the numbers will be, and that’s the situation continually facing the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. It often seems to be criticized at every turn.
The consistent funding uncertainty is the primary reason why Gov. Matt Mead appointed a new task force to help Game & Fish identify more revenue sources. Nineteen members — including legislators, conservationists, sportsmen, former Game & Fish employees, ranchers and outfitters — met at Casper College last week to hold their first meeting. Another is scheduled there June 10.
Task forces are nothing new; they are the bread and butter of state government. If a governor or legislative committee decides it needs expert advice — sometimes merely as political cover for what they want to do — a task force is assembled and expected to get busy.
For two days, the Funding Task Force listened to department officials outline their financial situation, and brainstormed ideas on how to bring in more money. Everyone agreed a consistent revenue source is needed to keep Game & Fish operating at least at its current level of efficiency, but it’s anyone’s guess what new funding mandates may hit the department at any time.
Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, noted Wyoming wildlife and fishing resources generate an estimated $1.1 billion annually to the state’s economy.
The task force definitely has its work cut out for it. Task force member Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said it’s difficult “to pin down the numbers we need unless we’re in charge of generating revenue.” Which they’re not.
“It’s a strange way to go about it, trying to state a problem without defining it,” another task force member agreed.
Shober summed it up well: “It’s like building an airplane while we’re flying it.”
When it comes to Game & Fish, nothing about the budgetary process is simple. That’s because it heavily relies on revenue from hunting and fishing licenses to fund its statutory mandate to manage all wildlife in the state. It’s how the department gets 78 percent of its budget, which includes 13 percent from other agency programs and only 9 percent from the state’s general fund.
But Game & Fish doesn’t have the power to decide how much hunters and anglers pay, because they’re at the mercy of state lawmakers who set the cost of fees and licenses. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the process is designed to keep the department from digging too deep into sportsmen’s wallets.
In 2013, the last time Game & Fish proposed a license cost increase, the move had overwhelming support from hunters and anglers who understand their money is vital to ensure they have enough healthy wildlife to hunt and fish to catch.
The Legislature said no to a reasonable 10 percent hike in most licenses and fees, even though they hadn’t been increased since 2008. Can you think of a few things that have gone up in price in the past seven years?
The Wyoming Game & Fish Commission, which oversees the department, was forced to reduce the past two biennial budgets by a total of more than $7 million. It eliminated key positions, reduced money available for vital habitat and research projects, cut the number of issues of its popular Wyoming Wildlife publication and eliminated its annual Youth Hunting Expo in Casper.
Attorney Ryan Lance, task force chairman, stressed even though the target figure of raising an additional $18 million was mentioned at the session, it’s only based on a single, unpredictable scenario offered by Game & Fish staff.
“It really depends on what projections you give us,” he explained. “We learned the funding resources that go in and the expenses that go out are highly variable. Any projection in this context is highly unreliable, especially as you get further into the future.”
For example, it’s impossible to know now what kind of fishing season sportsmen will encounter this year, and what changing conditions will impact revenue. “Potentially we will have a sea change in September,” the chairman said. Fishing is down during flood years, and if there’s a drought, the state’s opportunity to allocate even more licenses is diminished and revenue drops.
“Unlike projecting almost every other revenue source in the state, including severance taxes and excise taxes and all that, this is even more variable,” Lance said.
And if it’s impossible to accurately predict next year’s revenues, imagine the challenge of trying to guess what the funding situation will look like in 20 years.
The task force will present its recommendations to the governor and the Joint Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee by November. However, any bills that come out of the process aren’t guaranteed to even be seriously considered by either the House or Senate. Bills need two-thirds support in both chambers just to be introduced in the budget session, which is a difficult hurdle to clear.
“I think it will be tough politically, because it’s a budget session, and we are naive if we don’t go in with our eyes wide open,” warned Chris Brown, director of the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association. He said it’s not likely any type of tax would succeed during an election year.
“A lot of these [funding] ideas have been discussed in the past, and several failed recently,” Brown added. “We’re going to have to be realistic.”
Scott Talbott, Wyoming Game & Fish director, called all of the task force members “dedicated and informed.”
“I’m very optimistic we can come up with some good recommendations for the governor,” he said.
One idea mentioned by a task force member was the possibility of raising the state’s extremely low beer tax — which hasn’t happened since the 1930s — to generate additional revenue for Game & Fish.
But any enthusiasm for the idea seemed to sharply drop when Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff (R-Jackson) said the tax would likely generate only $269,000 a year, and others, like substance abuse officials, have already said they could use the money. “I don’t see how we could try to step in front of them,” the lawmaker said.
Some legislators critical of Game & Fish’s revenue needs say the department currently has $50 million in in reserves in its operating fund, so they don’t see a crisis looming. But that’s extremely short-sighted, because those funds aren’t going to last very long.
“Just taking into account inflation and changes in revenues going forward, that’s going to run out at some point, whether it’s 2018 or 2025,” Lance said. “We know that [funding] model is unsustainable. There are going to be bumps, but we have to find a way to level that out so we’re not back here every five years having the same debate.”
The state will likely be looking at dramatically new numbers next year, so a new debate is not only in order, it’s crucial to the health of Game & Fish.
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