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Sales Tax Dedication to Conservation Fund Deferred

June 16, 2008 12:00 AM

With no debate, the Appropriations Committee of the Louisiana House of Representatives Monday morning deferred Senate Bill 18 which would have dedicated one-twentieth of a penny of state sales tax to the Conservation Fund (Fund).  The measure was deferred with the concurrence of the bill's sponsor, Senator John Alario, who conceded that the proposal needed further evaluation in the context of state finances and budget policy.  Alario, Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, and several other committee members expressed support for the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries and pledged to come up with a workable funding proposal by the next Regular Session of the Legislature.  The committee was put in an awkward position after Governor Jindal announced several weeks ago that he would veto bills that make new dedications of state funds.  SB 18 had cleared the Senate on May 1st on a 33-2 vote with 29 coauthors.

The Conservation Fund is the primary operating fund of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries.  It receives revenues from hunting, fishing and commercial license fees and other sources.  SB 18 would have supplemented the Fund with approximately $40 million a year in state sales tax revenue that is now being allocated to other purposes in the state budget.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries has operated primarily on self-generated funds, federal funds and mineral revenue, with essentially no allocation from the state general fund.  Future shortfalls in revenues from license sales, mineral royalties and other sources are anticipated.  The fish and wildlife conservation agencies of other states like Missouri and Arkansas receive a significant percentage of support from state sales tax revenue, and as hunting and fishing license dollars shrink in relation to expanding responsibilities, state conservation agencies throughout the country are looking to similar general revenue support to supplement traditional sources.

Current revenue sources supporting the Conservation Fund include: sales of recreational hunting and fishing licenses and commercial licenses, royalties from mineral production on certain state-owned (including department-owned) lands and from extraction of sand and fill material from state water bottoms, assorted fees collected for boat registrations, survey fees, Wildlife Division program fees (such as DMAP), seismic fees and sales of merchandise including The Louisiana Conservationist magazine, posters and other printed materials.  Declines in recent years in the sales of hunting and fishing licenses, due primarily to senior outdoorsmen and women aging out of the ranks of licensed hunters and fishermen, has caused a reduction in this source of revenue to the Conservation Fund.

Corresponding increases in LDWF expenses, primarily in staff salaries and benefits, but additionally in equipment and fuel costs, expanded mission including emergency preparedness and search and rescue, and from new laws and regulations pertaining to regulating snakes, primates, big cats and other functions not related to the traditional work of the agency, have placed increasing demands on the personnel and financial resources of the agency.

The allocation of state general funds to the Conservation Fund would enable the LDWF to more thoroughly fulfill its mission of habitat conservation/management, biological research, aquatic weed control and enforcement of regulations as well as allow it to more sufficiently address nongame wildlife needs and nuisance wildlife management, scenic rivers, education and outreach, providing fishing and shooting opportunities to underserved communities, and other important functions of modern natural resource conservation agencies.  Additionally, the LDWF has pressing needs to update its fish hatcheries, regional offices, and facilities on its Wildlife Management Areas, including roads and bridges.  Some LDWF buildings are literally falling apart they are so old and worn.

"On more than one occasion the Legislature has recognized the impending funding crisis for the Department," said Randy Lanctot, long-time executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation.

Lanctot, who has observed these conservation budget challenges for many years, said that the Legislature adopted a resolution (SCR 19) in 2003 authorizing the establishment of a study commission to develop a plan for achieving long-term reliable funding for the LDWF, but nothing ever materialized.  He noted that the Jindal Wildlife & Fisheries Transition Panel on which he served spent the greater portion of its only meeting last December discussing with enthusiasm the Department's funding challenges and possible strategies to address them.

"Governor Jindal now has an opportunity, no, an obligation, to step forward with a commitment to review the agency's funding needs and present a funding plan for the future," said Lanctot.  "Perhaps a "blue ribbon" panel including some of the members of the his Wildlife and Fisheries Transition Panel with knowledge and interest concerning this issue, along with other progressive user group representatives and members of the stakeholder community, could be assembled to do some brainstorming on LDWF funding and make recommendations to the Governor and Legislature prior to the next Regular Session," he suggested.  "That's the least that Governor Jindal should do."

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