Funding for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife — a perennial issue — is a focus of the Legislature again. For too long, this discussion has resulted in a division between sportsmen and those who recreate in the outdoors but don’t hunt and fish with little progress toward finding a more sustainable way to fund DIF&W. Several bills offer ways to move beyond the current stalemate.
Realizing that a growing amount of the department’s work was not related to hunting and fishing, lawmakers in 2003 passed legislation to have 18 percent of the department’s budget come from the state’s General Fund. Immediately, money was tight and the state has yet to fulfill this commitment. About 10 percent of the DIF&W budget now comes from the General Fund.
Last week, lawmakers generally heard support for the department’s proposal to increase hunting and fishing license fees by $2.50 next year followed by a $1 increase in 2011. The money would help avert layoffs at DIF&W. Naturally, however, talk turned to charging canoeists and others who recreate in the woods.
Lawmakers will have a chance to further the transition to broader funding this week when the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee hears a handful of bills related to the department’s funding.
Two measures, sponsored by Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, aim first, to figure out how much of the department’s budget is devoted to work that is not tailored toward hunting and fishing, such as managing endangered species and protecting wildlife habitat. His bill, LD 244, would segregate that work and require that it be funded from the General Fund. His second bill, LD 225, calls for a constitutional amendment to protect that funding. The state constitution already has a provision requiring that money collected by the department, mainly from hunting and fishing license fees, stays within the department.
Tom Saviello, an unenrolled lawmaker from Wilton, comes at the same problems from a different perspective. In LD 510, he proposes a Maine Rescue card, which would be sold for $20 a year and would ensure the holder against the cost of his or her potential rescue. People without such cards or a hunting or fishing license who are rescued by the Warden Service, a branch of DIF&W, could be charged for that work under Rep. Saviello’s bill.
LD 626, from Rep. Jane Eberle, D-South Portland, would fund the state’s endangered and nongame programs through sale of licenses for nonmotorized watercraft. Such licenses would not be required of those with hunting, trapping or fishing licenses.
The best way to ensure that DIF&W is not viewed as an agency that caters to sportsmen and fishermen is to fund more of its operations from the General Fund. If more of its funding comes from other sources, however, sportsmen must accept that their voice will be diminished and that calls for efficiency among the state’s natural resources agencies — a common sense way to make limit resources go further — must be heeded.