Wyoming Game and Fish remains at funding crossroads
— April 1, 2014
Wyoming has relied on hunters and anglers to fund the Game and Fish Department since the 1930s. It’s been a successful funding model, but it can’t be sustained in the future without making considerable revisions to how the agency does business.
That point was made clear at the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission’s budget meeting last Friday in Lander, during a discussion initiated by Commissioner Aaron Clark of Wheatland, who questioned why the agency’s revenue projections are often far off the mark.
“Our cost projections are usually fairly good,” Clark said. “We are lousy, absolutely horrible, at producing decent revenue projections. … We made some significant reductions [last year] based on some revenue projections that were pretty poor.”
Deputy Director John Kennedy agreed, but pointed out Game and Fish does not have a consistent revenue stream because the number of hunting and fishing licenses sold can vary greatly from year to year. The department was unable to obtain approval from the Legislature for a 10 percent fee hike supported by Wyoming’s sportsmen last year, even though the fees have not been increased since 2008.
The commission cut its budget more than $7 million by eliminating key positions, reducing money available for vital habitat and research projects, cutting the number of issues of its popular Wyoming Wildlife publication and eliminating its annual Youth Hunting Expo in Casper.
But revenue for the year was much higher than forecast because more hunting and fishing licenses were sold than expected, and the agency received a windfall from an unanticipated increase in a temporary tax on weapons and ammunition when gun sales soared.
The result is a cash flow reserve of more than $50 million, which reportedly has some mistakenly thinking Game and Fish has reversed the problems that led to the budget cuts. Actually, the agency’s high reserve — it tries to have about $17 million on hand at any given time — is just a snapshot of what the department had available at the end of fiscal year 2013. In reality, those reserves have either already been allocated or will be lost through inflation.
With the unpredictable ebb and flow of revenue, there are times — particularly September through November — when the department’s expenditures exceed revenue, and there is a negative cash flow.
“How do we feel about that?” Clark asked his fellow commissioners. “Should we demand that we never have a situation in this department where expenditures exceed revenue? … It’s not a very good business model.”
“We’re charged by statute to manage wildlife,” Chairman Richard Kourda of Lander noted. “Obviously we can’t do that on a negative cash flow.”
Commissioner Carrie Little of Leiter said she believes the department “should operate like any successful business and live within its means. … Our priority has to be a balanced budget.”
But it should be clear to both the commission and the public that by historically depending on license fees to pay for about 80 percent of its budget, Game and Fish is a government agency that has too many other factors to consider — like meeting its statutory obligations to manage the state’s wildlife — to be expected to be operated the way the private sector would do business.
One example of how to change the agency’s traditional funding model was the Legislature’s passage of Senate File 45, which was lobbied heavily by the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance, a new coalition of 10 organizations that united after the last license fee hike was rejected by lawmakers. The WySA wanted to expand Game and Fish’s ability to obtain more General Fund monies, so sportsmen’s dollars could be stretched further for projects that directly benefit wildlife.
SF 45 mandates that beginning in the 2017-18 biennial budget, the Game and Fish Commission will request funds from the state for grizzly bear management and to pay for its employees’ health insurance premiums. About $2 million and $4.8 million were spent on those items, respectively, in the current budget.
Kennedy explained the department’s $68.9 million budget for FY 2015-16, which was given initial approval by the commission in Lander, is essentially flat, like it has been for the past three years. The only additional money in the budget covers the 2 percent raise for state employees in the department, a built-in 3 percent inflation rate and some funding for deferred maintenance that is critical.
The deputy director presented a “worst case scenario” extended budget for the agency through Fiscal Year 2019 that did not restore any funding for programs that were cut or eliminated. It had a reserve balance of $25 million.
“This is not restoring research dollars, or putting money back on the ground for habitat projects,” Kennedy stressed. Clark called it “survival mode.”
Unbelievably, Carrie Little looked at the worst-case scenario budget and said, “This looks good to me.”
“It’s hard to get rid of programs, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do,” she declared. “I’m proud of the cuts we’ve made. We should be very conservative. When I’m looking at $25 million in reserves, I’m saying, ‘We’re still good.’”
Fortunately, Commissioner Mark Anselmi of Rock Springs had a very different take. “We’ve got to have operating money, but we’ve got research and habitat that needs to be addressed, too,” he said. “We can’t operate the best wildlife agency in the world and not fund habitat and research.”
Clark said while he raised the discussion about the stability of the funding model, “We don’t need to do anything drastic. We’ve got time to go to the public and go to the Legislature and our partners and say, ‘How do we make this thing work? How do we continue to provide the best services we can?’”
Kennedy agreed. “We’ve got some time to think this through,” he said.
But while there may be some time to develop the right solution, the commission still needs to be actively looking for non-traditional funding methods that involve people who have a vested interest in our wildlife but currently don’t contribute to funding Game and Fish.
Steve Kilpatrick, a veteran wildlife biologist with the department who has worked with the WySA organizations, said he and the groups “don’t feel we have the time” to wait to work on funding issues.
He said while it’s a move in the right direction, SF 45 is “simply a Band-aid” for the department’s funding woes. “All it does is give you the permission to ask. You have no idea if you’re going to get money, which is pretty scary to us. We stand ready to look at long-term, non-traditional funding and look forward to working with the commission.”
Kilpatrick suggested there may be a way to “tap into the wildlife viewing companies and the services they provide to people who simply come to see wildlife, and they don’t pay a dime to the [Game and Fish] system. … Many are willing to pay; we just have to find a way to do that.”
Kilpatrick said he doesn’t want to call the long-time funding model broken. “I want to say, ‘Keep what we’ve got, but let’s improve it and expand it.’”
He also made a solid point about why it’s the right time for the commission and all stakeholders to address the funding issues. They can’t be left on the back burner.
“I’m worried that the Legislature the last two sessions said, ‘No, we don’t like the model. We don’t want to deal with it,’” he said. “If they’re not going to approve the current model, let’s find one that they will approve.”
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.
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