~~by Maureen Bader~~

Bureaucrats at the Game and Fish department continue to ward off calls for budget cuts.

During a Travel, Recreation and Wildlife (TRW) committee meeting earlier this month, the department came on like a public-relations juggernaut with a 100-slide PowerPoint presentation apparently intended to convey all the wonderful things Game and Fish does on behalf of all wildlife and all people in all Wyoming.

Like bureaucracies everywhere, Game and Fish’s mission is vaguely defined and subject to mission creep. The department’s mandate was to protect and preserve “Game animals, birds and fish of this State,” but has crept along to cover programs far removed from these core functions. As a result, implementing budget cuts that would reduce the budget now and in the future (unlike current short-term measures such as delaying maintenance or leaving vacant positions empty) mean cutting programs that fall outside its traditional mission.

However, the department is evoking the fear of program cuts to manipulate legislators into either increasing fees or finding more creative sources of revenue.

Until recently, department funding came primarily from user fees charged to hunters and anglers. However, in 2004, it started receiving monies from the state’s general fund. With fee revenue on a downward trend since 2009, the department is trying to lure more revenue from state taxpayers.

It now seems to have enlisted some help.

During the public comment at the TRW meeting, representatives from the AFL-CIO, Wyoming Wildlife Foundation and the Nature Conservancy called for more money for the department and higher pay for department employees. Where would this come from? “Alternative funding” and “non-consumptive user fees.”

According to Wyoming Representative Marti Halverson (R-Lincoln/Sublette/Teton), “alternative funding” means department personnel costs would be paid out of the state’s general fund instead of hunting and fishing license fees.

This translates to cost shifting from hunters and anglers to state taxpayers, which increases the likelihood of a personnel cost liftoff because there are many more pockets to pick.

Game and Fish bureaucrats are already doing quite well. Personnel costs, already 62 percent of the department’s costs, increased by 62 percent over the past 10 years. In contrast, median household income in Wyoming increased by 37 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. When government salary increases for an individual are double those of a typical Wyoming family, it’s clearly time to impose some parity in the service of budgetary sanity, to put it nicely.

But there’s more. Game and Fish bureaucrats and their allies are busy thinking up ways to force people to pay a tax when they take a photo or see a buffalo. Amateur photographers and wildlife watchers, it seems, have “consumed” wildlife but not paid a license fee so should pay a “non-consumptive user fee” instead.

Let’s stop and think about this one for a moment. Imagine walking past the cake shop. You look in. You see cake. At that moment, you’ve non-consumptively consumed cake. The shopkeeper walks out of his shop and charges you a fee for your non-consumption.

Ridiculous? It sure is!

Once you stop laughing – be afraid. Wyoming already has a consumption tax – it’s called a sales tax, and Game and Fish is already looking to take a bite out of it. Game and Fish Director Scott Talbot announced this past October that he wants 1/4 of 1 percent of the sales tax, according to Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife Executive Director Bob Wharff.

A Legislative Service Office publication shows that a 1-percent increase in the state’s sales and use tax would bring in an additional $183 million in 2013. One-quarter of that is about $46 million – virtually six times the $8 million the Game and Fish department wanted with its proposed hunting and fishing license fee hikes in 2013.

This might be great for bureaucrats looking for pay hikes, but would likely be bad for everyone else. Here’s why:

If the sales tax goes up, people will tend to purchase less unless retailers lowers the item’s pre-tax price. This squeezes business margins and means the retailer who just barely makes ends meet at the higher pre-tax price level may have to lay off workers or close down completely. This means private sector jobs in Wyoming will tend to fall after a sales tax increase. A higher sales tax is a silent job killer.

Seems the Game and Fish department doesn’t care where the money comes from, as long as it gets more. But stripping hardworking families of even more money will reduce department accountability and kill private-sector jobs. It’s time for more accountability, not less, at Game and Fish.
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