Since 1971 Texas hunters and fishermen have been purchasing one type of conservation stamp or another to go along with their hunting and fishing license.
Most hunters and fishermen would think that the revenue from those stamps are spent by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on wildlife and fisheries projects around the state. In reality, the department is basically holding IOUs as millions of dollars of revenue from the stamp programs and license sales is diverted to underwrite other state agency budgets and allow Texas legislators to claim the state operates on a balanced budget.
That could change, however, with a call to redirect dedicated funds to the agency and purpose intended.
For TPWD, that could mean as much as $65 million in additional funding by the end of fiscal year 2012-13.
Speaker of the House Joe Straus last week voiced his interest in seeing the funds spent as intended in an attempt to make state spending more transparent. Gov. Rick Perry issued his support for the idea in April.
“We are heartened by those discussions,” said Carter Smith, TPWD executive director. “Elements of that dialogue seemed to start in the last session. That is when we heard legislators start to talk about the buildup in certain funds.”
TPWD has four major stamps supported by freshwater fishermen, saltwater fishermen, migratory game bird hunters and upland game bird hunters.
The freshwater fishing stamp is the newest, having started in 2004 with the intention of providing funds for hatchery construction and repair. The stamp costs fishermen $5 on top of the cost of a license.
The saltwater fishing stamp was started in 1986 and now costs $10.
In 2005-06 the department revamped the stamp program to include all migratory species in one stamp and all upland game birds in another. All hunting stamps cost $7.
While overall fisheries and wildlife accounts expected to carry about $65 million in balances by the end of the next fiscal year, the amount from the stamps totals about $34.7 million, with the migratory stamp fund balance expected to reach $11.7 million. The saltwater and freshwater balances are projected at $9.3 and $9 million, respectively, while the upland game bird stamp fun is expected to hold $4.7 million.
Smith said there are critical demands and needs for that money, and that it wouldn’t be squandered.
“We are sensitive that there are concerns about that large of an infusion of money and that it would be spent to be spent. I can promise you we are not going to do that,” Smith said.
Examples cited as needs include the Dundee Fish Hatchery near Electra that is currently closed because of a lack of a water source, and major repairs needed at other facilities. Increased dollars for research into the disappearance of bobwhite quail in the northern portion of the state is another.
“The short answer is that we could reasonably and prudently uses portions of those funds to invest back into the resources,” Smith said.
There are restrictions on how the stamp funds can be used. Most of the wildlife funds are to be directed toward habitat or research. While the freshwater fishing stamp is dedicated to the hatchery system, rainbow trout and urban fishing program, money from the saltwater stamp is used for a number of things include a commercial fishing license buyback program.
Even if the legislature is willing to direct dedicated as intended, there is the chance state agencies can be penalized with a reduction of general funds or reduce the agency’s appropriated spending.
Releasing dedicated funds, however, would not solve revenue shortcomings with TPWD’s Parks Division. That would require an overhaul of the so-called sporting goods tax fund that was initially created to provide the division with adequate funding.
“Ninety-four percent of the sales tax is to be for the department, but we have seen our share decline for several years,” Smith said.
The fund takes in about $125 million annually, but TPWD is currently receiving only about a quarter of that amount. To cover a $4.6 million deficit, the division has been forced to ask for public donations, raise user fees and hope for $5 donations tied to vehicle registrations. Those efforts have fallen far short.
Smith said if the department were to receive the entirety of its allotment from the fund, it would solve delayed repair needs within the parks as well allow it to restore the local park funding program.