Sunday, February 24, 2013

Washington's looming budget sequester will cut wildlife funding in Pennsylvania

By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By design, nearly every American will feel the pinch of federal spending cuts scheduled to go into effect Friday. Virtually all domestic governmental services, including wildlife agencies and park bureaus, will be impacted, as well as the hunters, anglers, park visitors, agency employees and wildlife that rely on federal funding.

If the harsh spending cuts occur as expected, even user-supported state agencies such as the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Fish and Boat Commission will be affected.

John Arway, executive director of Fish and Boat, said it's "unfair" that federal strings attached to state wildlife agency resources may constrict budgets that are already strained. The federal government will withhold about $2 million in user-generated resources from the Fish and Boat Commission and the Game Commission.

"That money is not their money," said Arway. "That's the state's money, and that applies to all 50 states." The White House and Congress intentionally boxed themselves into the legally binding fiscal corner in 2011 when they couldn't agree on how to reduce a staggering national debt approaching $17 trillion. The sequester began as a way of kicking the spending can beyond the November 2012 election.

The Associated Press reported the Obama administration recommended the automatic, uniform spending cuts to guarantee enough deficit reductions to offset new borrowing. The goal was to ensure Washington wouldn't have to revisit the debt limit debate until after the 2012 elections -- it was thought the threat of harsh, non-surgical spending cuts that would impact every voter would drive politicians on both sides to a compromise.

With the president's support, Congress passed the Budget Control Act, which mandated across-the-board spending cuts (with exceptions including Social Security and military pay) if a federal spending deal could not be reached in two years -- March 1, 2013. Senate Democrats put their faith in post-election negotiations to avert the "fiscal cliff," which resulted in President Obama claiming victory on his promise to raise taxes on the rich, but only securing a two-month respite from the sequester, according to AP. House Republicans, who twice in 2012 passed unrequited savings plans, insist that debt limit increases must be matched by dollar-for-dollar cuts in federal spending.

With five days until the Budget Control Act takes effect, AP reported there are no meaningful efforts in Washington to avert the automatic cuts set in law nearly two years ago. Both sides blame the other. Under the sequester, $85 billion will be cut from a $3.6 trillion March-September budget and $1.2 trillion will trimmed over 10 years.

The National Park Service, with some 400 sites, 275 million annual visitors and a yearly budget of $2.75 billion, will be directly impacted by the sequester. An internal report leaked last month by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees said the NPS is bracing for an initial hit of more than $100 million that would impact 1 million park visitors.

"Congress might just as well put a big 'Keep Out' sign at the entrance to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Cape Cod Seashore and every other iconic national park in the U.S.," coalition spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo said in a prepared statement.

Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which manages the award-winning state park system, could lose $1 million in sequester cuts. "We have not received anything official from anyone," said press secretary Christina Novak. "That being said, a 7 percent reduction in federal funds could translate to a $1 million decrease in federal grants awarded to the department. We do not believe the impact would adversely affect our operations."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Department of the Interior, has not released details of sequester-related impacts on its operations. But as controller of federal excise tax revenues derived from purchases of hunting and fishing gear, the agency will be required to withhold funding from the states.

The Budget Control Act requires the federal government to hold back funds earmarked for state-based wildlife, fish and boating safety programs. Washington collects and controls Pittman-Robertson Act taxes on hunting supplies and ammunition and Dingell-Johnson Act taxes on fishing and boating supplies and fuel, which are considered mandatory, nondiscretionary funding. By law, the government is forbidden from spending those resources on anything but hunting and fishing needs in the states.

A report by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies said that under sequestration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife will withhold 7.6 percent of those trust funds from the states -- a loss of $74 million to state wildlife agencies. Not able to spend the money, the government will store the withheld funds in an account.

This year in Pennsylvania, about $20 million of the Game Commission's nearly $100 million annual budget comes from Pittman-Robertson. A little more than $14 million of Fish and Boat's $55 million budget comes from Dingell-Johnson. In the sequester cuts, the Game Commission will lose a little more than $1 million. Fish and Boat will lose $1 million.

Arway said Fish and Boat could absorb a delay in receiving its Dingell-Johnson allocation -- "I do have a rainy day fund," he said -- but a long-term loss of nearly $1 million annually would be a substantial setback for the agency. "Even if they do it for a year and give us $2 million next year," he said, "there are cost-sharing problems associated with it, and we'd still lose money."

Record sales of guns and ammunition have significantly increased Pittman-Robertson allocations to the states. Game Commission spokesman Joe Neville said the agency's increased revenue provides a financial cushion easing the blow of Friday's sequester cuts.
"What the sequester means to us is we'll have to delay some things, push that bump down the road," he said. "We have a Game Fund where we have a reserve balance. If we start seeing our Pittman-Robertson allocation going down [annually], we'll have to make adjustments to our long-term planning."

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