Angry Lawmakers Study Wildlife Crisis State Fish And Wildlife Commission Faces A $17 Million Deficit Without Action Now
The state Fish and Wildlife Commission, facing a projected $17 million revenue shortfall, on Saturday asked angry lawmakers to consider a plan that calls for trimming the agency’s middle management corps.
The panel left for another day the question of job security for the department’s embattled director, Bern Shanks.
Shanks, who answers to the commission, got into trouble last week when his agency discovered a revenue shortfall of $2.5 million in the Wildlife Fund, due in large part to sudden drops in hunting and fishing licensing. The shortfall is projected to increase to $17 million by mid-1999 if something isn’t done to correct it.
Lawmakers, including House Speaker Clyde Ballard, have expressed anger over the surprise announcement, which came as they wrap up their work on the supplemental budget for the year. Some legislators have called for Shanks’ termination, while others want to give him time to resolve the problems.
The nine-member commission, which has three vacancies because two positions haven’t been filled by the governor and the Senate ousted a member last month, met behind closed doors for 2-1/2 hours Saturday to discuss the crisis. The agenda included consideration of “personnel matters,” prompting speculation of Shanks’ imminent dismissal.
Lisa Pelly, the commission’s chairwoman, declined to reveal much about the panel’s discussions after the meeting, except to say there was no motion to fire Shanks, nor was there a vote of confidence.
“He is still our director,” she said.
Appointed director in 1996 by the commission, Shanks is an ex-Marine, former smoke jumper and outdoor survivalist with a doctorate in natural resources development.
“This is the most insecure job in Washington state government,” Shanks said Saturday when asked about his job security. The agency is buffeted by constant storms over vanishing fish and wildlife habitat; the decline of wild salmon; tensions among tribes, sportsmen and environmentalists; fights between sport and commercial fishermen; and disputes with other states over management of North Pacific fish resources.
Commission members met with key lawmakers on Saturday morning and again in the afternoon Saturday to discuss their proposed bailout plan.
The plan, the second one offered in a week, calls for $6.5 million in program cuts, including the elimination of 86 jobs. The agency also proposes raising $4.1 million by selling some assets and eliminating plans to purchase others, and it asks the Legislature for a $6.8 million batch of emergency cash from the state General Fund.
Legislators rejected their first proposal, which called for eliminating 18 wildlife enforcement positions and about 25 positions in hatcheries and fish management. The revised plan focused on middle management positions, including 21 in the department’s administration.
Lawmakers have indicated the department may get some of the cash it’s requesting, but not all of it. Decisions must be made soon since the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn Thursday.
The $17 million shortfall, projected for the department’s two-year budget cycle ending July 1, 1999, would amount to a 31 percent drop in the state’s $54 million Wildlife Fund. That fund accounts for about 21 percent of the department’s $250 million budget.
Shanks blamed the problem on sudden drops in hunting and fishing license fees and bad monitoring of the trend by his department. He said poor deer and elk hunting along with weak salmon and steelhead seasons should have alerted the department sooner that they faced a serious deficit.
Shanks is receiving mixed signals from lawmakers, who hate the prospect of reopening the budget as they begin the session’s final week.
“Bern Shanks in my mind has been thrown into a real briar patch, and he’s not out of it yet,” said Sen. Bob Oke, a Port Orchard Republican and chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee. “He has more problems than any one person should have, but I think he can work out of those problems.”
But House Natural Resources Chairman Jim Buck, R-Joyce, said lawmakers from both parties have “a serious confidence issue” with Shanks, and said the director should go.
Buck, reminding reporters that he is a West Point graduate, said, “The commander is responsible for everything that happens or doesn’t happen on his watch.”
Pat McMullen, a commission member from Mount Vernon, noted the crisis also happened on the commission’s watch. Asked to describe Shanks’ status with the commission, McMullen replied with one word: “controversial.”
The commission planned to meet again Monday, probably in Seattle.