Wyoming lawmakers cut back on wildlife, fire budgets

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Wyoming lawmakers cut back on wildlife, fire budgets
By Gregory Nickerson
Originally published at WyoFile.com on February 12, 2013

Wyoming lawmakers have decided to set aside less money for fires than Gov. Mead recommended, while also killing proposals that would increase funding for the Game and Fish Department.

The moves demonstrate the difficulty of securing legislative backing for wildfires and wildlife projects in a time of increased budget scrutiny.

Satellite imagery of the North Buffalo Fire in central Wyoming. (Courtesy of NASA — click to view)

Satellite imagery of the North Buffalo Fire in northwest Wyoming. (Courtesy of NASA — click to view)

The action taken—or not taken—by lawmakers could have negative effects on habitat increasingly under pressure from development and drought.

“The single most important challenge facing the future management of wildlife today is the lack of adequate funding for management and conservation,” said Game and Fish director Scott Talbott. Without sufficient funding, it’s much more difficult to address habitat fragmentation, disease, climatic extremes, invasive species, and other pressures on wildlife.

For now, the Game and Fish has enough money for 2014, but faces 15-20 percent cuts in the 2015-2016 biennium. The agency cautioned that a decrease in spending for sensitive species could lead to additional listings under the Endangered Species Act, which, “could have significant negative impacts on Wyoming’s economy through greater land use restrictions.”

Fires also put pressure on habitat and species, which the state tries to address by actively fighting fires on state and private-owned lands.

State Forester Bill Crapser says current budget recommendations will provide more than enough money for a regular fire season.  Yet it remains to be seen whether the current amount of fire money will be enough to cover a repeat of the exceptional fire season of 2012.

“We’re hoping to get a lot of rain and moisture in the next few months but right now the forecasts show we’re staying in a droughty trend for the foreseeable future,” Crapser said. “They are predicting above average fire behavior in the Rocky Mountains.”

Game and Fish

During the interim the Game and Fish (G&F) approached the Joint Interim Travel, Recreation, Wildlife, and Cultural Resources Committee (TRW) with a request to increase license fees for hunting and fishing. The request came on the heels of a nine-month funding study.

The agency gets about $42 million of its $70 million budget from license fees, but it must request permission from the legislature to increase fees.

The last license fee increase for the G&F came in 2007. Since then, costs have gone up about 3 percent a year for the past six years due to inflation, according to John Emmerich, deputy director of external relations for the G&F.

Despite an $8 million increase of funding from federal grants and outside sources, and a cut of 4 percent in G&F spending since the last license fee increase, the agency is still looking at a $10 million shortfall for 2015.

The problem, Emmerich says, is that the Game and Fish operates on a fixed-income basis after each license-fee increase, and eventually inflation erodes the spending power of the money.

“That’s been the funding model for the last 80 years: as revenue falls below inflation we go back to the legislature (for a license fee increase), and the sportsmen support it and it goes through. But it didn’t happen this time,” Emmerich said.

Wyoming's Game and Fish Department operates on a fixed-income basis after each license-fee increase, and eventually inflation erodes the spending power of the money. (Richard Taylor/Flickr — click to enlarge)

Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department operates on a fixed-income basis after each license-fee increase, and eventually inflation erodes the spending power of the money. (Richard Taylor/Flickr — click to enlarge)

Even though the level of permanent personnel is the same now as in 2008, at 411 people, the task list assigned to the agency has grown, with additional duties such as managing sage grouse, aquatic invasive species, and wolves.

Some of those costs, including all costs for managing non-game/sensitive species, are borne by the state through a General Fund appropriation that amounts to about $9.5 million of the $71.5 million G&F budget. “(For) the new programs that have been added, the legislature has been very generous in covering those costs,” Emmerich said.

The majority of the budget, however, is related to management of game species, and that work is carried by agency-generated revenue, especially license fees. The Game and Fish Commission controls the $60 million game species portion of the G&F budget, giving the agency a large degree of independence from the Joint Appropriations Committee (JAC) that controls budgets of most other agencies.

Despite efforts at budgetary transparency, that lack of legislative control over the larger chunk of G&F spending has caused frustration among legislators.

During budget bill debate over an unsuccessful amendment to pay more for health insurance of G&F employees, Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Recluse) questioned whether an agency that receives nearly $20 million in federal funds and outside grants might not have the state’s interests as a first priority.

“Are they being driven by state priorities or federal priorities from outside the state? We feel like we need to know more about how these priorities are being set and what is being spent,” Wallis said.

(The G&F website notes that the grants go to improving habitat, securing access and easements, and monitoring of sensitive species.)

The lack of legislative oversight over the G&F has resulted in Wallis pushing for House Bill 78 – Budget Review Process. The bill would require the G&F to present more budgetary information to the JAC, while stopping short of fully bringing those agencies’ budgets under the control of the JAC.

“We do trust the Game and Fish, and they do a good job, but a lot of people just want to know where the money is going,” said Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Lander), co-chair of the JAC. “The G&F is working with us, but you can’t get a complete answer, and the devil is in the details.”

In addition to the budget review bill, Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) introduced a proposal for hunting license raffles, Senate File 35. The bill would have generated revenue by selling tickets for a chance to win normally high-priced big-game licenses, like those for bison and bighorn sheep. However, the sponsor withdrew the bill before it made it to the Senate floor.

Raising license fees

The more important G&F bills this session revolved around raising license fees or indexing the fees for inflation, which would prevent the agency from asking for more revenue every few years.

Indexing bills failed to gain passage in 2005 and 2008, according to Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne).

Two bills aimed at license fee increases—Senate File 32, and House Bill 136, both failed to move past the committees in their house of origin. House Bill 260 made it to the floor of the House, but died on a vote of 8 in favor and 52 against. Prior to the session, the interim Joint Travel committee voted in favor of a license fee increase proposal after studying the issue for nine months.

But when the session rolled around, seven out of nine members on the House Travel committee were new to the issue, not having served in the interim.

The new members joined veteran committee member Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman), one of the strongest opponents to the license fee increase. He said the information provided by the G&F in the interim wasn’t enough to help him understand how money was really being spent.

Jaggi wanted the G&F to work with him on identifying places where their budget might be trimmed.

“I asked them for a list of their high priorities down to their low priorities, and the low priorities we’d put on hold or do away with, until the economy picked up, (but) they never would give us (a list) of those,” Jaggi said.

Jaggi said he opposed a license fee increase and indexing for inflation because of the impact it would have on hunters and fishers in a down economy. Since workers aren’t getting cost of living increases in their jobs, Jaggi felt that the state should not put an agency cost-of-living increase on the backs of license-buyers.

“We need to come up with some funds, but we also need accountability for how they are spent, rather than just tax-and-spend,” Jaggi said.

Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) was co-chair of the Joint Interim Travel committee. He felt that some of the newcomers on the House Travel committee (Jaggi was one of only two veterans) didn’t have time to get familiar with how the agency is funded and how its money gets spent.

“There seems to be a bias against either Game and Fish, or the funding model for Game and Fish,” Burns said. He mentioned that in the next interim he will try to get extra meeting time for the Joint Travel Committee in order to make sure there is time to explain the funding structure.

Jaggi thought his fellow committee members sincerely voted for what they thought was right in denying the license fee increases.

“We are kind of labeled as ‘we don’t care about the Game and Fish’ and that is not at all (true),” Jaggi said. “We just want good accountability. I am going to go out on a limb here (by saying) I think we are one of the committees that really are demanding more accountability.”

Some legislators, like Rep. Dan Zwonitzer don’t buy the argument that the G&F is unaccountable for how it spends money. “They try immensely to be transparent to with their budget and talk to us,” he said. He noted that the agency puts budget information on its website. For lawmakers like Jaggi, that information doesn’t provide enough detail.

Zwonitzer made multiple efforts to get more funding for G&F after the failure of initial bills aimed at license fee increases. He sponsored HB 260, which would have increased license fees, but without indexing as proposed by HB 136. That would have helped the agency make it through the next biennium without major cuts. Zwonitzer also offered a budget bill amendment to pay for G&F employee health insurance, one of the major inflationary costs. None of Zwonitzer’s efforts passed.

Burns said the license fee measures likely failed because of pressure from constituents opposed to the increases. “Part of the outside pressure is understandable, because sportsmen are getting tired of being the only ones who are paying for Game and Fish when in fact everyone in Wyoming is benefiting from it,” Burns said.

That leaves Burns and other legislators with another goal for G&F funding in the next biennium: finding new funding streams that would spread out the cost among the state’s residents. As reported by WyoFile prior to the session, other ideas for raising G&F revenue include special license plates, allotting a portion of fuel or severance taxes, or selling conservation stamps to non-hunters.

Burns said he wouldn’t elaborate on his ideas for additional G&F revenue because they are too preliminary at this point.

So, with multiple efforts at increasing revenues getting shot down, what’s in store for the G&F in the next biennium? First off, Emmerich says 2014 will bring more cuts that will take the G&F over the average 6.5 percent cut proposed by Gov. Mead for all agencies. The agency already cut nearly $2 million from its 2013 budget. The agency will likely have to make 15 to 20 percent cuts for 2015-2016. That could reduce the agency’s $70 million budget to about $55 million.

“The case we made is if you want to maintain the same level of services that we have, you definitely need more money,” Emmerich said. He expects cuts will affect how many fish the agency stocks, how much wildlife data it collects, and how much it can pay landowners who provide public access to their land.

All those cuts will have an impact on the wildlife economy in Wyoming, which generates $1.1 billion of the state’s $9 billion tourism industry.

Wildfires

Early 2012 marked the fourth driest spring in Wyoming history, and the summer became the warmest and driest on record for the state, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center. Nationally, last July was the warmest in history.

That set the stage for the fires of 2012, which burned nearly 600,000 acres in Wyoming. Suppression efforts cost $108 million in total, with over $43 million of that cost borne by the state. It was the worst fire season in Wyoming history.

The Arapaho Fire near Laramie Peak burned about 98,000 acres in June and July, costing over $13 million. Other major fires are listed below:

Fire Name     Dates              Acres              Cost

Arapaho         6/27-7/16     98,115            $13,100,000

Fontenelle      6/24-10/18   65,220            $12,650,000

Oil Creek        6/29-7/9        62,318            $5,282,964

Alpine Lake    8/9-10/25     45,877            $3,850,000

Previously, Wyoming’s biggest fire season came in 2006, when the state spent $17 million, according to the Casper Star Tribune.

At the beginning of the 2012 fire season the state had $9.2 million in the emergency fire suppression account. The state ran through about $6 million of that by the end of June, and eventually spent all regular and emergency fire suppression funds, leaving about $8 million in unpaid fire bills as the year ended.

Several communities still have fire bills to pay to the United States Forest Service (USFS), including Johnson County, where the local fire district offered to pay about $200,000 for fighting the Gilead Fire. The USFS wanted over $1 million from the fire district.

In his November budget message, Gov. Mead recommended that $60 million from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA) be set aside to cover outstanding fire bills, as well as provide a fund to prepare for the 2013 fire season. That money was to come from $150 million in LSRA money set aside for Gov. Mead to use as a contingency fund should natural gas prices continue to drop.

Last week, however, the JAC proposed to budget only $32 million in General Fund money for fighting fires in 2013, far short of Gov. Mead’s recommendation of $60 million from the LSRA. Approximately $11.2 million of that would go toward paying off last year’s bills and filling up the fire suppression account, leaving about $20 million to fight fires this summer.

Sen. Bebout said the JAC disagreed with Gov. Mead’s recommendation because they didn’t want to take money out of the LSRA “rainy day” account. The JAC also didn’t have a lot of excess cash in the General Fund after funding several other major projects, like $50 million for the UW College of Engineering.

The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook for the next three months of 2013

The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook for the next three months of 2013. (Department of Commerce — click to enlarge)

But during budget debates last week, JAC co-chairs Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) and Sen. Bebout put forward amendments in their respective chambers to add more money to the fire accounts. Their proposals would take $15 million from an account set up for remediation of groundwater at leaky landfills, and redirect it to fire suppression.

The landfills money could only be used for fires if all the rest of the $20 million for fires gets exhausted, said Rep. Harshman. He also said Gov. Mead and the JAC would replenish the landfill account if the money gets used.

Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland) voiced his support for the amendment, despite being a major proponent of cleaning up landfills. He said work on landfills won’t likely begin for several years, and that the promise to restore any money spent for fires would satisfy his concerns.

Rep. Harshman’s amendment passed in the House, while Sen. Bebout’s failed in the Senate. The Harshman amendment will go to the conference committee for the budget bill, where it will likely pass. That would make about $35 million available for fires in 2013, approaching the $43 million cost of last year’s fires.

If this winter’s conditions hold, Wyoming could be looking at another hot, dry summer. Right now, snowpack in southeast Wyoming is less than 60 percent of normal. Current United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) drought conditions are extreme or exceptional for much of Wyoming. The USDA predicts drought to be persistent in most of the state though at least April.

Update 2/14/13: Rep. Steve Harshman told WyoFile that the legislature is appropriating more money for fires in 2013 than ever before. He also said the state spent about $20 million for fighting fires last year, as opposed to the $43 million cited in this article. During the February 11, 2013 conference committee hearings on the budget bill, the Joint Appropriations Committee agreed to take only $5 million from landfills remediation and redirect it to fires.  Even so, the budget bill will put more money to fires than originally set aside year. If the state runs short on money for fires, Gov. Mead can use the B-11 budget process to transfer money within department budgets to make up for the shortfall. 

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He is based in Cheyenne during the 2013 legislative session. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

For information on how to contact your legislator during the session, click here.

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