Utah officials use rainy-day fund to avoid license fee hikes

They'd pay more, they say, to keep rainy-day fund from running dry.
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Despite hard financial times, Utah wildlife officials have been reluctant to increase fishing and hunting license fees. Jim Karpowitz, director of the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), tapped into a rainy-day fund this past year and plans to do it again next year to stave off an increase.

"We just don't want to ask sportsmen to pay more in tough economic times when we have this money," Karpowitz said. "It just doesn't feel right."

Anglers, however, say they support paying more for their licenses and have let the state agency know it for several years.

"We are fully aware of the problems the DWR is having with less federal money and decreasing or flat hunting and fishing license sales," said Paul Dremann, president of the Utah Anglers Coalition, a collection of state and local fishing conservation groups, clubs and fishing stores.

"The anglers have felt strongly for many years that there should be a license increase. We actually would have preferred that they had gone after one this year."

The rainy-day fund is a restricted reserve fund mandated by state and federal law to hold onto surplus gathered from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. The money is held in an account managed by the Utah State Treasurer and can be used only by the Division of Wildlife pending permission of the Legislature.

Money from the account, about $11 million, is used in case of emergencies such as feeding deer during extreme winters, habitat projects after large wildfires and working to control wildlife disease outbreaks.

Officials have tapped into the fund the past two years and the balance, last bolstered by a hunting license increase in 2008, is at its lowest point since 2007. More than $1 million was used for the 2011 budget.

"We had to cut $3.5 million from our [fiscal year 2012] budget, but the Legislature has been good to us," Karpowitz said. "We have lost some anglers, and our hunter numbers have gone down a little. So our budget was good, but our revenue was not so good."

The wildlife agency will have reduced its staff by the equivalent of 25 full-time employees (though no full-time permanent workers will be laid off) by the end of the 2012 fiscal year.

Karpowitz said his agency will ask the Legislature for approval to use about $2 million for fiscal year 2012 and seek an increase in hunting and fishing license fees in the 2013 Legislature. If passed, those increases would not start until July 1, 2013, and the agency would not see the full impact of the increase until the summer of 2014.

Dremann said anglers have been discussing an increase for several years and are willing to support an increase in the 365-day adult resident fishing license of $6. The current fee is $26 for an adult resident license.

As a former DWR director and current president of the nonprofit Mule Deer Foundation, Miles Moretti understands the value of the rainy-day fund. Moretti remembers using it during his tenure to kick off a massive habitat initiative and for important work on Utah's hatcheries.

"Having surplus is the sign of a responsible and solvent agency," Moretti said. "Not having to come back to the sportsmen with an increase every year due to inflation and other issues is important. And how they use that money is important because they are leveraging it 10 times in matching funds in many cases."