Hunters and anglers of West Virginia, get ready for a bumpy ride.
The state Division of Natural Resources is getting a really big hole blown in its annual budget, and it’s happening because Gov. Jim Justice is spending money that isn’t his to spend.
On March 26, at the height of concern over the COVID-19 pandemic, Justice issued an order to allow state residents to fish for the next 30 days without having to purchase fishing licenses.
Sociologically, the order seemed to make sense. The license waiver would give people idled by the state’s social-distancing mandates to get out and enjoy a fun, mostly solitary pastime. A lot of people, me included, thought it was a decent thing to do.
What no one seemed to consider was the damage the order might do to the DNR’s budget.
It takes about $25 million a year to run the agency’s wildlife, fisheries and law enforcement sections. Almost all that money comes from sales of hunting and fishing licenses and from federal aid money that is tied to the number of licenses the agency sells. Taxpayers don’t pay the DNR’s bills; hunters and anglers do.
During the height of the trout-stocking season — the very time of year when Justice chose to waive the fishing-license requirement — the agency usually sells between $1.3 million and $1.7 million worth of fishing licenses and trout stamps. Clearly, licenses didn’t get sold through that period this year.
According to the DNR, fishing-license sales for April 2019 came in at about $2.1 million. This year, with the moratorium, that number dipped to about $1.2 million. That’s about a $900,000 difference.
So, between March 26 and April 24, the DNR got a $900,000 bite taken out of its budget. That’s a 3.6% revenue cut.
Let’s say you make $25,000 a year after taxes. How much would you have to tighten your belt if someone snatched away $900 of your hard-earned cash? Pretty substantially, I’d bet. That’s the sort of belt-tightening DNR officials were looking at.
Now they’ll have to tighten even more, because Justice just wrote another big check the DNR will have to cash.
On May 4, during one of his daily coronavirus-related press briefings, Justice fielded a question from a reporter who asked if he’d thought about extending the fishing-license waiver through the end of May. Justice said he’d look into it.
Less than five hours later, he extended the waiver through May 31.
This latest extension will last 27 days. Because it comes after the peak fishing-license buying period, it probably won’t be as expensive — maybe $500,000 in lost revenue instead of $900,000.
The damage, however, will be cumulative. Over the next year, hunters and anglers will expect the DNR to provide the same programs and services it always has, only the agency will probably have $1.4 million less money with which to do it.
Without that money, the DNR probably won’t be able to attract as much federal aid, because they won’t be able make match the feds’ grants at the usual level.
There’s no way the Legislature will be able to “make the DNR whole” for the loss caused by the fishing-license waivers, because the state’s treasury is at least $500 million in the hole at the moment.
So, at minimum, the DNR will suffer about a 5.6% cut in operating capital. That’s going to hurt. Agency officials will almost certainly have to cut back on some programs and reduce the services they ordinarily extend to hunters and anglers.
Just how much they cut remains to be seen, but clearly the state’s hunters and anglers are going to pay a price for the free ride anglers got during the COVID-19 crisis.