EDITORIALS

Essential programs and wildlife?

Posted June 22, 2011, at 5:30 p.m.
5-year-old Ari Abruzzese of Canaan releases two brook trout into Hight Pond near downtown Skowhegan on Friday, May 13, 2011. Assisting Abruzzese is Gene Arsenault, a fish culture supervisor for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife's Embden hatchery.
5-year-old Ari Abruzzese of Canaan releases two brook trout into Hight Pond near downtown Skowhegan on Friday, May 13, 2011. Assisting Abruzzese is Gene Arsenault, a fish culture supervisor for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife's Embden hatchery.

If additional funding for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Department of Marine Resources is such a priority, lawmakers should have made sure more money for these agencies was included in the recently passed state budget. Instead, lawmakers plan to punt and ask voters whether to pass a constitutional amendment devoting a portion of state taxes to the two departments. This circumvents a needed discussion of the state’s priorities. Lawmakers should reject this proposal before they leave Augusta for the summer next week.

Proposals to amend the state Constitution to devote more money to the state’s natural resource agencies have been introduced for years. They are usually rejected because lawmakers recognize that, while funding for fish and wildlife may be important, such expenditures should be weighed against other state needs.

The same logic should hold true today.

LD 563 would amend the Constitution to dedicate 1.2 percent of state sales and use tax revenues to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Department of Marine Resources. That amounts to more than $10 million a year, with 90 percent going to DIF&W and 10 percent to DMR.

Earlier this month, the bill passed the House, barely garnering the needed two-thirds of lawmakers present. Preliminary votes in the Senate were in favor, but the matter is now before the Appropriations Committee because of its price tag. The committee is slated to consider the bill Thursday.

To be fair, DIF&W and DMR have been underfunded for years, especially as the agencies have taken on more responsibilities. In 2003, lawmakers passed legislation to have 18 percent of DIF&W’s budget come from the state’s General Fund. Immediately, money was tight and the state has yet to fulfill this commitment. Roughly 10 percent of the DIF&W budget has come from the General Fund in recent years.

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. This was approved by voters in 1992.

Ironically, lawmakers thought they were helping the department when they passed this amendment. Instead, it has left their successors to believe that DIF&W is adequately funded.

A compelling case can be made that DIF&W and DMR need more money. But, that need must be weighed against other demands for scarce state resources. Should that money come from K-12 funding? Payments to the state’s hospitals? Legislative salaries?

If funding these departments is so important, it is up to lawmakers to find the money, not to toss a misleading constitutional amendment on to the voters.

Further, for supporters of zero-based budgeting, which Gov. LePage plans to implement, starting two departments off with $10 million a year runs counter to this budgeting philosophy.

On LD 563, lawmakers haven’t done their job. They have a few days to correct that.

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