March 24, 2023

Maine Fish and Wildlife Funding Woes

Every governmental agency has to balance revenue with expenditures……well, “any responsible government agency” – and that phrase in quotations is truly an oxymoron. The State of Maine suffers many of the same problems as other states in outspending the revenue coming in. So what does a fish and game department do?

In this instance it must be recognized that just about every state in this country is struggling with budget issues. Much of the reason is simply a lack of tax generated revenue that isn’t meeting the desires to spend money.

However, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) doesn’t get it’s funding from general taxation. While some of its funds come from taxes on sporting goods-related products and services, the bulk comes from the collection of licensing and registration fees from users. So why should there be a shortage of revenue or overspending?

One of the reasons I have written about extensively over the years – too many non game programs being run by the MDIFW using sportsman’s money to pay for them. So, this is clearly one avenue in which the State and MDIFW can work to correct. Perhaps it is time to pay for all non game programs with general taxation and/or user fees for those that generally play for free. This effort would require budget rewrites and cuts or tax increases for other departments that would pay for the programs and services.

As they would say in Maine, I’m a “wicked” fiscal conservative. I don’t believe in throwing money at a problem and hope it fixes it. In trying economic times, as we are facing today, Maine sportsmen, citizens and all government agencies have to “suck it up”, as the saying goes. This requires making unpopular decisions by making short term decisions that will play well into long term planning.

George Smith, former executive direction for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), writes on his blog today that MDIFW is short $900,000 with 5 months remaining in this current budget period. He also writes that MDIFW has $1.2 million in its “reserve” account and some are hollering to use that money to meet the demands of MDIFW.

Smith also writes in his Downeast Magazine blog that: “Two weeks ago the agency’s John Pratte told the committee the deer plan needed an additional $650,000 per year to be fully implemented. Some legislators appear ready to say to DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock: ok, go for it. Take that $650,000 out of your surplus and show us what you can do.” Is using up that surplus money to implement the Deer Plan what Maine should do? Or, use it for other needs within the department?

Whoa, is the cry in demanding some kind of fiscal responsibility, including transparency, from any government agency but there is one very clear thing that is too easily forgotten these days; keeping the license buyers and fee payers happy. After all, they are the biggest source of revenue and the ones with the real investment here.

While we can all harp and debate about how efficiently and effectively MDIFW spends the money it has, that department needs desperately to convince its investors that they are wise stewards of our money. Without that, all the rest is simply a practice in futility.

I ask, when was the last time any MDIFW administration went out of their way to convince the stakeholders, i.e. the revenue generators, that their money is being wisely invested?

Getting the MDIFW house in order is only one aspect of the formula for responsible management. If MDIFW can convince fee payers their existence means something and the majority of the focus is put back on providing opportunities, the department would be on the way to curing the revenue stream.

Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t that easy but it certainly would go a long way.

To increase revenue, there has to be satisfied users of the resources. If the hunting and fishing resources stink, it only stands to reason license sales will drop, and of course that means a reduction in revenue. The above suggestion of making the sportsmen happy will go a long way toward the start of rebuilding more license buyers.

Let’s face it. The only way you can sell hunting licenses is to have ample opportunities to hunt game or fish for fish, etc. The lousy deer herd has certainly cut into license sales and will continue to do so until things change.

But there are things MDIFW can do for the short term that would bolster license sales. Staring the state squarely in the face are two huge opportunities for both hunters and the MDIFW. Maine has probably the largest black bear population of any state in the Union. It was also recently announced by Lee Kantar, MDIFW head deer and moose biologist, that the moose population has grown to 75,000 or more. MDIFW needs to jump all over these two situations and accomplish two things. 1.) Provide more hunting opportunities for hunters, both in state and out of state, and 2.) Increased opportunities directly relates to increase revenue. This would help pick up the slack of a current $900,000 shortfall.

Maine must not just jump at the opportunity to grab all or some of the $1.2 million surplus without being responsible. It’s simple really: 1.) MDIFW and sportsmen need to back off on the demands for money at a time when all departments need to tighten their belts. 2.) MDIFW needs to convince license and fee buyers it is THEIR interest that is being guarded and protected and prove to them that they really have no place else to cut spending. 3.) Work toward finding how structurally to provide funding for non game programs through other departments and/or user fees for the free loaders. 4.) Take advantage of the very large bear and moose populations and provide opportunities NOW. That will give a short term increase to revenue.

If these efforts are undertaken, the short term will set the stage of long term success. I will unequivocally state that MDIFW cannot be successful and maintain a quality and responsible budget if their only attempt comes in raising fees or confiscating tax money from some place else. A quality product will yield more revenue. With continued fiscal discipline and responsibility, the result will be a well functioning fish and game department that more closely resembles the days when the sportsmen actually felt they had ownership and those “in charge” listened to them.

In closing, I might caution the efforts of some in Augusta. While the scramble is on to find money, it is prudent that in consideration of all sources of revenue, the big picture is kept in clear perspective.

Smith writes to readers that Senate President Kevin Raye has launched an effort to find other means of revenue:

In the meantime, a separate effort has been launched by Senate President Kevin Raye to find new revenue sources for DIF&W. Participating in discussions with Raye are the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Maine Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, and the Maine Tourism Association.

Not all of these agencies have the same goals as the sportsmen who pay the bills at MDIFW. It is their investment and any perceived desperation of lacking funds that result in seeking revenue elsewhere, should never compromise the strong Maine heritage of hunting, fishing and trapping for the mere sake of throwing more money at a problem.

Tom Remington