DNR budget shortfall could be $35 million

Correspondent

Stevens Point, Wis. The Conservation Congress Executive Council
learned at its October meeting that the DNR budget shortfall is
expected to hit at least $35 million in 2004.

Darrell Bazzell, DNR secretary, and Joe Polasek, DNR budget
director, brought the news to the council.

“Our proposed 2003-05 budget has no growth in positions, which I
don’t think has ever happened before,” Bazzell said. “It has no
growth in general tax spending, and only modest growth in some
segregated fund spending. It’s pretty lean.

“It will be a long and difficult budget process,” Bazzell said.
“We’re going to take the pain like everyone else.”

The DNR doesn’t spend a lot of general tax dollars. Most of its
support comes from segregated funding through license fees. Those
fees are put in the Fish and Wildlife Account from the sale of
hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses. That money funds most of
the fisheries, wildlife, and law enforcement programs.

The DNR already has plans to reduce expenditures funded by
General Purpose Revenues (derived from state taxes) and segregated
revenues (from license fees) by 5 percent.

Yet by 2004, the budget will be in the red unless the DNR gets a
license fee increase, or some form of alternative funding.

“Revenues are down because of CWD, but even if CWD had never
happened, we would still be down,” Bazzell said.

Typically, license fee increases occur on a four-year cycle,
with the last increase taking place in 1997. Normally, a fee
increase generates increased revenues in excess of what is needed
the first couple of years, and then the excess balance is drawn
down until expenditures equal revenues the last few years.

Polasek said it has been seven years since the last fee
increase. If the DNR does request, and receive, a license fee
increase, it would be March of 2004 before hunters and fishermen
would see the increase.

“What helped us get to a seven-year stretch without an increase
is that when we switched over to the ALIS license system we got a
one-time infusion of cash,” Polasek said.

In the past, the DNR had to wait until money was submitted
through county clerks, which took several months. The year the ALIS
system began (1998) all of the cash was put in the DNR account
immediately, providing a one-time infusion of about $10
million.

Then, in 1999, Gov. Tommy Thompson took $2.5 million from tribal
gaming revenues to help the DNR budget, and set the precedent for
having some non-license revenues fund conservation activities.

But, in the meantime, several unanticipated factors reduced the
fish and wildlife revenue account:

Revenues declined by $2.4 million as a result of low interest
rates in investments.

The Legislature provided an additional 50-cent cash transaction
fee to licensing agents. That fee means DNR pays an additional $1
million; DNR was not allowed to charge more to make up that
cost.

The Legislature converted 13 conservation wardens from GPR funds
to be supported by segregated funds.

The Legislature also eliminated hunter education class fees. Now
all the cost of training comes out of the Fish and Wildlife
Account.

License sales associated with deer hunting appear to be down 20
percent. For every 5 percent decline in sales of licenses, the DNR
loses $5 million.

“Put these all together and we’re looking at a $15 million
shortfall per year,” Polasek said. “We don’t have any specific
proposals yet, but could look at a combination of a fee increase
and expenditure reductions. If we don’t have a fee increase, we’ll
have to cut about 25 percent of everything funded by the Fish and
Wildlife Account.”

The DNR projects a $15 million deficit in 2003-04 and a $34.5
million deficit in 2004-05. (New estimates closer to deadline show
that the 2005 deficit may be closer to $40 million).

Russ Hitz, Conservation Congress executive councillor from
Wheeler and chairman of the Congress’ Alternative Funding
Committee, emphasized that it is imperative to secure alternative
sources of funding.

“It’s not just hunters and fishermen who should support the DNR
with funding, but it’s also bars, restaurants, and meat processors;
everybody who has a stake in natural resources and the DNR,” Hitz
said. “If you don’t have people out hunting, then resorts, bars,
restaurants, and other businesses won’t have business from deer
hunters.”

Hitz said that businesses and people who benefit from natural
resources should participate in funding the DNR.

Ed Harvey, Jr., of Waldo, congress vice chairman, echoed Hitz’
sentiment, saying that sportsmen have been the backbone of funding,
whether it’s crop damage, CWD, or whatever.

“Seven years ago we said we would support a fee increase, but
that the next time we would need an alternate scenario of funding,”
Harvey said. “Here we are seven years later and we’re looking at a
large deficit and a decrease in license revenues. We may need a fee
increase, but we definitely need an alternative funding
proposal.”

Bazzell cited the example of Crex Meadows Wildlife Area in
Burnett County, which receives thousands of visitors each year, of
which about 75 percent are non-consumptive users and do not pay for
maintenance and operation of the property. The property is managed
with segregated funds (from hunting and fishing licenses).

“We need more people contributing to maintain those properties,”
Bazzell said.

Conservation Congress Chairman Steve Oestreicher directed the
Hitz’s alternate funding committee to meet by mid-November to come
up with a recommendation for the congress to consider.

The Natural Resources Board will hold a special meeting, via
telephone conference call, Nov. 25 to review DNR plans to reduce
spending by 5 percent, and to look at a potential fee increase
proposal or alternative funding plans so the DNR can submit a
balanced budget proposal for 2003-2005.

Any fee increase or alternative funding proposal will need
legislative approval and the governor’s approval. Any proposal for
alternate funding will require a broad coalition of not only
hunting and fishing groups, but general citizens if it has hopes of
passing.

Also attending the meeting was state Sen. Kevin Shibilski
(D-Stevens Point) who told the council that the one key missing
component in the war on CWD is providing for hunter confidence
testing.

“The DNR has done a superb job, pulling out all the stops to do
scientific sampling to see if and where the disease has spread,”
Shibilski said. “But, we see a lot of hunters wringing their hands
as to whether they want to bring home venison.”

Shibilski said the Joint Finance Committee told the DNR that
when it comes back requesting an appropriation for CWD, that the
agency must outline a way for providing confidence testing for
hunters who want their deer tested for CWD. He was pleased that the
governor, USDA, and Bazzell had come up with an additional 200,000
tests.

Shibilski said he believes that if the deer kill is down 20 to
30 percent, the DNR will lose control of the herd.

“We hunters are the last best chance to curtail the size of the
herd,” he said. “Some people may not hunt this year and some may
not shoot as many antlerless deer as normal, so we hope that access
to these tests will help appease the concerns of hunters and
families around the state.”

Council member Dick Koerner of Neenah asked where money will
come from to help the DNR. Shibilski said that the last time, the
Legislature took money for DNR out of the recycling fund. That’s no
longer available.

“We’ll find the resources,” Shibilski said. “The DNR has done
what it needs to do. It has rallied the troops, but there isn’t a
wildlife management team out there managing wildlife right now.
Instead, everyone is focusing on CWD.”

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