Don’t hold your breath waiting for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to get funding from the public. This column is a long one, but not as long as the road to DIF&W public funding – a road that turned out to be a dead end.
The Humane Society of the United States has challenged the credibility of the wildlife biologists at Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, claiming they are biased toward sportsmen. I don’t think that’s true, but because the agency is entirely funded by sportsmen, they are open to that kind of challenge.
If in fact they always did what sportsmen wanted, my job at the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine for 18 years would have been a lot easier! In fact, I wouldn’t have had anything to do.
Well, I would have had one thing to do – one thing we have never achieved – and that is to win public funding for this beleaguered agency. Some years when the state treasury was flush we got a small bit of money, and one year Governor Angus King bailed them out with DIF&W ended the year with a $1 million shortfall, but we never got anything close to what the agency was spending for public services. One year DIF&W documented the costs of its services to the public (as opposed to its work on fish and game animals) to be $10 million.
An article in the October, 2013 edition of Northern Woodlands, written by Tovar Cerulli, provided an informative history of funding for state wildlife conservation. “For three quarters of a century, state fish and wildlife agencies have depended almost entirely on money generated by license sales and federal excise taxes,” reported Cerulli.
In addition to the money we pay to DIF&W for licenses and permits, they also receive a portion of federal excise taxes on our guns and hunting and fishing gear.
“That funding was established in 1937 by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act,” reports Cerulli, “more commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act. The Act dedicated an existing 11 percent excise tax on rifles, shotguns, and ammunition for wildlife research and restoration, wildlife habitat improvement, the development of public access facilities, and hunter education. Subsequent amendments extended the measure to handguns and archery equipment.”
“In 1950, the Dingell-Johnson Act instituted a parallel tax on fishing equipment to fund fisheries research and restoration, habitat work, the stocking of fish, and public access. It too has been amended and expanded over the decades. Together, the two programs have generated $15 billion since their inception,” notes Cerulli.
So far, so good, you might say. But as Cerulli reported, the mandates and tasks now handled by state wildlife agencies hasve expanded tremendously, mostly for a wide array of public services, from endangered species to boating access to search and rescue. And sportsmen are paying for all of it.
“The problem is exacerbated by decades of static or declining license sales,” Will Hyatt, Chief of the Connecticut Bureau of Natural Resources told Cerulli, who also reported that “sales are expected to drop further in the coming years.”
Maine’s sale of hunting and fishing licenses peaked over 20 years ago. Sales of nonresident licenses have seen an especially steep decline.
DIF&W Constitutional Amendment
The state’s environmental groups stepped up big time in 2011 to lead a campaign to direct a portion of the sales tax to DIF&W. And they almost won. Here’s the account published in my outdoor news blog on June 29, 2011.
Tenacity, skill, a good bit of begging and some good luck, almost put on your November ballot a Constitutional amendment that would have given the Departments of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Marine Resources 1.2 percent of Maine’s sales tax revenue.
At the last possible minute yesterday afternoon, five Senators who had voted for this bill on June 8 changed their vote to no. That was all it took to derail a decade of work.
The five who disappointed all who care about the fish and wildlife resources of our state were Senators Elizabeth Schneider, Roger Sherman, Lois Snowe-Mello, Nancy Sullivan, and Michael Thibodeau.
When I managed the 1992 campaign that placed Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in the Constitution and protected its revenue, I never imagined that this important agency would receive no public funding for the next 30 years. That campaign was launched to prevent the governor and legislature from using DIF&W revenue for other state programs.
But over the years, governors and legislators saw the department’s revenue as a ceiling, rather than a floor, and refused to provide General Fund tax money to the agency. Finally, this session an idea that has kicked around for more than 10 years took root, blossomed, and bore fruit. But that fruit withered on the vine yesterday afternoon.
Senator David Trahan was the bill’s sponsor and a hands-on in-the-trenches General who worked night and day to win this fight. Tom Abello of The Nature Conservancy, Jen Gray of Maine Audubon, Matt Dunlap of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Nick Bennett of the Natural Resources of Maine and I (there out of a personal interest and not paid) worked together for the bill. Several House and Senate members along with DIF&W staff joined our lobbying effort and helped pick up key votes.
After its hearing (no opponents) and work session, the bill got a strong boost from the Taxation Committee with a unanimous “ought-to-pass” recommendation. Then the real work began.
It takes a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House to place a Constitutional amendment on your ballot. Our initial headcount showed us a few votes short of the 24 that were necessary if all 35 Senators were present and voting. We worked hard, picking up a Senator here, another there, but stalled at 23 yes votes.
That’s when we asked Nick Bennett of the Natural Resources Council of Maine for help, specifically requesting that he make our case to one particular Senator. He did and that Senator moved into the yes column.
The Senate debated the bill and we held our breaths as the roll call vote proceeded. When President Kevin Raye closed the vote, we had just exactly the 24 votes needed.
Then it was on to the House, where we had an even tougher fight, falling short of the necessary two thirds by a handful of votes – three times! The bill actually died once, but Dave Trahan refused to quit and came up with a strategy – an amendment to the bill – that successfully kept it in play.
Representative Seth Berry of Bowdoinham made it his personal crusade to defeat the amendment and caused us a lot of problems. But we pounded legislators, singly and in groups, in their caucuses, at lunch in the State House cafeteria, even (alas) in the men’s room. Well, I did that.
As our final chance approached in the House, we sat in the gallery, anxious. After a lengthy debate, Speaker Bob Nutting opened the vote, green lights indicating yes, red lights indicating no. We fell short again, by five votes. Republican Majority Leader Phil Curtis tabled the bill, giving us one final chance.
You really had to be there to appreciate the intensity we were now feeling, the sense of desperation, so close yet still short of victory. We went hunting for votes.
It was hot outside, in the 80’s, and when we reentered the House gallery mid-afternoon, we were beat. But upbeat too. We thought we had the votes and we did. The final vote was 99 in favor, 47 opposed. We had one vote to spare.
Although we celebrated, that wasn’t the end of the story. Some members of the Appropriations Committee on June 23 tried to reduce the amount of sales tax going to the two agencies from 1.2 to .5 percent. Trahan, Abello, and Dunlap were there to head that off, and we won a 10 to 1 vote from that committee.
Despite all of that effort, we stumbled within sight of the finish line, betrayed by five Senators who sentenced Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to continued decline.
On their 2014 candidate surveys for the Sportsmen’s Alliance of Maine, gubernatorial candidates Mike Michaud and Eliot Cutler expressed support for public funding for DIF&W. The survey asked candidates if they would support a Constitutional amendment that allocated General Fund tax dollars to DIF&W, a straight General Fund appropriation, or something else.
Governor Paul LePage broke the promises he made to SAM in 2010 about funding for DIF&W. LePage promised to fund 20 percent of DIF&W’s budget with General Fund money, and to veto any budget that didn’t include that. He did neither. SAM would not provide me with a copy of LePage’s 2014 survey – and surprisingly didn’t even print it in the SAM News or make it available on their website. But given that LePage broke his promises on the 2010 survey, I wouldn’t give any of his answers on the 2014 survey much credibility.
Michaud has a long track record on this issue. I worked with Mike when he was on the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, where he got DIF&W $400,000 of public funding for technology upgrades. He also worked to bring the Warden Service’s retirement benefits in line with those of State Troopers.
His answer on this question was very thoughtful. “I recognize that IF&W is underfunded and has increasingly been asked to do more with less,” he wrote. “If the Legislature were to pass a reasonable Constitutional provision to fund IF&W, I would sign it. However, given the volatility of the sales tax and the need to get our state’s budget under control, I would also want to work with SAM, the Department and legislators and leadership from both sides of the aisle to look at other ways to make sure IF&W has the resources it needs to do its job.”
Cutler also put some thought into this question. “I do not believe the Constitution is the right place to appropriate funds,” he wrote. “I refused in 2010 to make promises to anyone about any particular budget item or appropriation matter, and I won’t do so now…I do agree that it is unfair and unwise to fund public services – like many of those performed by the staff at DIF&W – with revenues collected from only a portion of those who receive the benefits of those services. I will commit to work with legislative leaders and members of the Appropriations Committee to create a budget for DIF&W that includes significant support from all Mainers for the important work of the agency.”
A “Blue Ribbon Panel” has been selected to “develop a 21st Century model for sustaining America’s fish and wildlife resources. According to a press release I received in mid-September, “Top executives from the outdoor recreation, energy, agricultural, automotive, financial, educational and conservation sectors accept challenge of finding funding solutions to prevent Endangered Species Listings.”
Johnny Morris, founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops(R), and former Wyoming governor, Dave Freudenthal, selected 20 members for the panel. The Blue Ribbon Panelists represent the outdoor recreation retail and
manufacturing sector, the energy and automotive industries, private landowners, educational institutions, conservation organizations, sportsmen’s groups and state fish and wildlife agencies. The Panelists will work together over the course of a year to produce recommendations and policy options on the most sustainable and equitable model to fund conservation of the full array of fish and wildlife species.
“Conservation means balancing the sustainability of fish and wildlife with the many needs of humans for clean air and water; land; food and fiber; dependable energy; economic development and recreation,” said
Morris. “By assembling this Panel of highly regarded leaders and problem solvers, we will find a way forward that safeguards not only vital natural resources, but also our nation’s economic prosperity and outdoor heritage.”
“With fish and wildlife species and natural resource-based enterprise at stake, we can’t afford an ‘us vs. them’ mentality,” said Freudenthal. “It is time to create certainty for both industry and the conservation community by building a 21st century funding model.”
“Dedicated funding allowing for the management of all fish and wildlife, whether game or non-game species, is essential for this nation,” said Bob Ziehmer, Missouri Department of Conservation director and representative for state fish and wildlife agencies on the Blue Ribbon Panel. “Many species are declining in abundance and will
continue to do so if we don’t work toward establishing a sustainable funding source for our nation now and into the future.”
To learn more about AFWA’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Fish and Wildlife Resources, go to