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Budget cuts could take bite out of state wildlife funds

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Something happening soon in our nation's capital will take a $760,000 bite out of West Virginia's fish, wildlife and law enforcement programs.

It has a fancy name - "budget sequestration." What it amounts to is automatic, almost-across-the-board cuts to governmental spending.

You've probably heard about the "fiscal cliff" the federal government faces at the end of this year. Part of the cliff comes from tax increases tied to the new health care law, and from expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts. The other part of the cliff is a pile of mandatory budget cuts that go into effect if Congress fails to agree on a budget by December.

Congress passed the law that required the cuts, but they left it up to the White House and executive-department bureaucrats to decide which programs to cut and which to exempt.

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget detailed those cuts in a Sept. 14 report. The news wasn't good for the nation's sportsmen.

Three federal programs that provide roughly $972 million a year to state fish and wildlife agencies are to be cut by 7.6 percent.

Curtis Taylor, wildlife chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said West Virginia receives approximately $10 million a year from those programs. That's roughly 40 percent of the DNR's budget. The projected 7.6 percent cut would slash $760,000 from West Virginia's share of the federal money.

"The cuts will cripple us," Taylor said. "Without that funding, some of our programs will go away, and others will be seriously curtailed - rifle ranges, trout hatcheries, hunter education, and even our Archery in the Schools program."

Taylor and other agency heads are scrambling to figure out what to do. When I reached Taylor, he was in Arkansas at a meeting of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. He said the cuts "are all everyone is talking about."

"There are technical aspects to this the feds haven't even thought about. Those 'little details' are going to put a lot of state agencies in a world of hurt," he said.

Two things make the cuts particularly galling. One is that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar could have exempted those programs from being cut but didn't. The other is that cutting those particular programs isn't exactly legal.

By law, money raised by federal excise taxes on hunting equipment, fishing tackle and motorboat fuel is supposed to be set aside specifically for states for use in wildlife, fish and boating-safety programs.

"Those funds are supposed to be sacrosanct," Taylor said.

Congress got around the law by sequestering the funds instead of making the cuts permanent. Under sequestration, 7.6 percent will be withheld from the states each year for 10 years. At the end of that period, the accumulated money supposedly will be returned to the agencies in a lump sum.

"The problem with that is those programs all require the federal money to be matched dollar-for-dollar by states. States that can't match it aren't allowed to receive it," Taylor said. "I'm darned sure [the DNR] won't have $7.6 million sitting in its accounts when those federal funds are finally released."

Here's the bottom line:

Those sequestered funds are your money. The federal government guaranteed that your state's fish and wildlife programs would benefit from that money. If Congress doesn't pass a budget, and if Obama administration officials keep fish and wildlife programs on the list of mandatory cuts, they've broken that guarantee.

The funds can still be saved, but only if we sportsmen scream long and loud. Perhaps it's time our representatives in Washington heard from us.


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