Change in budget procedure could hurt wildlife projects
Putting hunting, fishing license money into general fund may imperil grants
By Judy Benson Published on 10/12/2009
Millions in fees collected annually from sales of hunting and fishing licenses - fees that doubled in the new state budget adopted last month - will now go into the state's general fund rather than directly toward wildlife conservation projects.
The accounting change, taking effect just as the fall hunting season gets under way and hunters are paying the higher fees for the first time, is raising some questions at the federal agency that has been supplying annual grants for wildlife projects to supplement the state license fee revenues.
In the fiscal year that ended in June, for example, federal grants totaling $2.1 million were combined with $5.36 million in license revenues to help fund staff and programs focusing on hunter safety, waterfowl management, wildlife habitat improvements and management of the state's deer, wild turkey and moose populations, among others.
NEW HUNTING AND FISHING LICENSE FEES
To be eligible for the federal grants, administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and known as Pittman-Robertson Act funds, states must agree that all fishing and hunting license fees they collect will go to the state's agency that oversees wildlife initiatives, said Diana Weaver, spokeswoman for the federal wildlife service's New England office.
”That's the catch right there,” she said. “We're looking into the legislation Connecticut passed.”
Dennis Schain, spokesman for the state DEP, said the new budget moves all revenues collected by the department from park entrance fees, licenses and other sources, into the state's general fund. Previously those funds were retained by the DEP. Schain said DEP officials welcome the change as a way to provide the agency with more stable funding and a better way to pay staff salaries and benefits.
He added that a bill approved by the legislature on July 1 contains language included specifically to ensure that the federal agency's requirements for state hunting and fishing license fees are met.
Weaver, however, said Fish & Wildlife Service officials have been meeting in recent weeks with DEP officials about the accounting change, and that no conclusions have been reached yet about Connecticut's eligibility for future Pittman-Robertson funds.
Schain said the DEP must now provide the Fish & Wildlife Service with documentation showing that the state will spend on the DEP's Wildlife Division staff and programs an amount equal to or greater than the amount collected from license fees. Connecticut is modeling itself after other states such as New York and New Jersey that fund their wildlife programs through their general funds and still receive the federal grants, he added.
The specific amount the state will spend on wildlife programs and staff in the current fiscal year isn't yet known, he said, “because the budget is so new.”
But “the budget will show at least level funding” compared to the fiscal year that ended June 30. The total budget for all wildlife staff and programs in fiscal 2008-09 was $10.7 million, he said, with roughly half coming from the license fees and the rest from state funds. The $2.1 million federal grant funds are in addition to that.
Public Act No. 09-173, approved by the legislature July 1, in part reads:
”The state of Connecticut assents to the provisions of the Act of Congress titled 'An Act to Provide that the United States Shall Aid the States in Wildlife Restoration Projects, and for Other Purposes'... and no funds accruing to the state from license fees paid by hunters, including, but not limited to, license fees paid by hunters pursuant to section 26-28 shall be diverted for any other purpose than the protection, propagation, preservation and investigation of fish and game and administration of the functions of the department relating thereto.”
Schain acknowledged that many sportsmen would prefer that the fees they pay for licenses continue to go directly to wildlife programs and may find the accounting change distasteful, especially coming at the same time as the doubled license fees. It's too soon to know, however, whether sales of licenses will decline as a result, he said. The hunting and fishing license fees are among many increased in the new budget as part of efforts to close the deficit.
”Time will tell what the impact will be,” he said. “Any time there's change and prices go up, there's a possibility that people will make different choices.