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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Despite $20 million budget shortfall WDFW not planning significant cuts

Kelly Susewind speaks with the public on Monday Nov. 5, 2018. Susewind, the new director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, started a state-wide listening tour in Spokane. ELI FRANCOVICH/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

Despite facing a $20 million budget shortfall, Washington’s wildlife management agency will not make significant cuts.

Instead, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will make minor cuts to services and hope the Legislature gives them more money during the 2020 supplemental budget cycle. If that doesn’t happen drastic cuts are likely in 2021.

“That puts us in an awkward spot. Do we make the cuts now to make sure that we’re fiscally responsible (and) close to on budget? Or do we charge ahead, racking up debt? Anticipating we will get it next year,” WDFW Director Kelly Susewind said. “So it’s kind of like there’s a cliff out there. And rather than lowering the cliff …”

Widespread layoffs aren’t on the table, although Susewind said, “I wouldn’t say no layoffs. But significantly no.”

The agency is facing a $20 million budget shortfall after a bill that would have increased hunting and angling fees for the first time since 2011 failed. At the same time, a request for more general fund money to back fill a structural funding deficit in the department’s budget was not fully funded. And, permanent reauthorization of the Columbia River salmon and steelhead endorsement failed. The endorsement brought in $3.3 million every two years.

“We are definitely in a hole,” Susewind said.

Initially, layoffs and other major reductions in service were considered. But, lawmakers seemed to encourage Susewind not to make massive cuts, he said.

“I’ve checked in with several legislators and budget writers who said we fully expect you’re coming back next year with an ask,” he said.

The Legislature did give WDFW $24 million in one-time general fund money.

WDFW’s structural deficit is due to three things: Funding via general-fund taxes and recreational license sales has not kept pace with costs; a one-time funding fix approved by the Legislature in 2017 expired in June; and the department is still recovering from budget cuts from the Great Recession.

Although WDFW won’t be making large cuts, there will be some “belt tightening” Susewind said.

For one, the agency will no longer have an after-hours call center. The agency’s after-hour calls were handled by a third-party company. And, WDFW will not fill vacant jobs as quickly, or at all. Instead, WDFW will aim to have a 4% vacancy rate statewide.

And, planned enhancements for the Fish Washington app are on hold, as is the development of a similar app for hunting.

“The types of cuts that we can make we are making,” Susewind said.

WDFW’s proposed budget was built on the recommendation of a citizen Budget and Policy Advisory Group, and was developed after the department was reviewed by a third party which determined WDFW’s management and policies were not creating the deficit.

In February, a diverse group of outdoor enthusiasts, ranging from hunters to environmentalists, including the Spokane-based Inland Northwest Wildlife Council and Lands Council, lobbied lawmakers in Olympia to fully fund WDFW.

Still, unpopular Columbia River and salmon fishing policy decisions made the bill a tough sell, Susewind said.

“You have a big visible reduced opportunity and a management decision that’s unpopular, it gets pretty easy not to vote for a fee,” he said. “Part of my focus is trying to get us to be known more as a conservation agency, a broader agency that’s providing a lot more than just your local favorite hunting and fishing spot. Because when I tick you off about your local hunting, you hate the whole agency. I think if you think the agency is really preserving, protecting and perpetuating wildlife for everybody … it’s harder to then punish the agency for not performing in one or two areas.”

As to whether or not WDFW will propose another fee increase bill, that hasn’t been decided yet. The agency has asked for a fee increase, unsuccessfully, for the past three out of four budget cycles.

“There is the flip side of what part of no don’t you guys get,” Susewind said.

The continued underfunding of the agency makes it hard, Susewind said, to deal with pressing longterm issues like climate change, a growing human population and decreasing and degraded habitat.

“That’s part of the reason we got to break this biennial budget hole we we get in, we spend a ton of energy just trying to survive,” he said. “And it just limits our ability to be proactive and get ahead of the curve, we’re trying to catch up.”