A year and a new strategy made a huge difference in the efforts of sportsmen’s and conservation groups to help solve the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s funding problems.
On Friday, the 10 organizations that formed the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance (WySA) last summer celebrated their successful lobbying effort with the passage of Senate File 45.
The bill will give the Game and Fish Commission the ability to seek state general funds for both grizzly bear management and to pay for employees’ health insurance premiums. Currently, both expenses are funded through hunting and fishing license fees.
“Commission monies will no longer be used for those two programs,” explained John Kennedy, deputy director of internal operations at Game & Fish. “So those funds can be re-directed to other on-the-ground projects.”
During the 2013 general legislative session, several organizations acted independently to support a proposed 10 percent hunting and fishing license fee hike to increase funds for the department’s wildlife programs. A similar bill failed during this year’s budget session.
But the new WySA rallied around SF 45 and met several lobbying challenges to get the measure approved by both chambers.
The WySA includes Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Bowhunters of Wyoming, Hunting With Heroes, Muley Fanatic Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Wyoming Trout Unlimited , Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation, Wyoming Federation of Union Sportsmen, and Wyoming Wildlife Federation
“The Senate really didn’t like the provision to pay for the [workers’] health care, although it did prevail on a 17-13 vote,” recalled Kim Floyd of the Wyoming Federation of Union Sportsmen. “The House loved the health care but didn’t like the grizzly bear. At one point the bear was taken out [in committee], which meant we would have to go to a conference committee if the bill passed with that amendment. … That’s a good way to kill a bill.”
But the House removed the committee’s bear amendment and restored the management program during first reading of the bill. SF 45 survived another amendment attempt on second reading when Rep. Gerald Gay (R-Casper) – the only member of the House Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee who voted against the bill – tried to pull the insurance premium funds.
Gay didn’t help his cause when he claimed that since the average person pays $1,500 a month for insurance through the Obamacare exchanges, SF 45 would effectively “put $1,500 more a month in the pocket” of every Game & Fish employee. The claim was patently false, since the department already fully covers workers’ insurance premiums through hunting and fishing license fees. The only thing that will change is the funding method.
Gay’s amendment was soundly defeated, and there were no other attempts to change the bill on its final reading, when it passed overwhelmingly, 45-11. Because it left the House in the same form it left the Senate, there is no need for a conference committee and the bill will go straight to the desk of Gov. Matt Mead, who supports the legislation.
Floyd said he was glad to see the WySA got the message out that Game & Fish funding needs to be examined. “While this bill isn’t the panacea by any stretch of the imagination, it absolutely was a big win for us,” he said.
“We do not have sustainable fish and wildlife by accident,” said Neil Thagard, Western Outreach director for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a WySA member. “It is through appropriate funding that pays for science-based wildlife management. This does not come free of charge.”
Floyd, executive director of the Wyoming State AFL-CIO, added that a blue-ribbon task force was suggested by the governor to look at non-traditional funding. “We’re more than willing to look at finding different solutions to funding,” he said.
Last year the grizzly bear management plan cost $2 million to implement, while the department spent $4.7 million in sportsmen’s dollars on insurance. Under SF 45, Game & Fish will be able to make general fund requests for both in the next biennium budget.
Kennedy said the support shown by the WySA “was overwhelming and very much appreciated. They spoke loud and clear for supporting Game & Fish.”
Floyd noted that coalition building is used by industry, labor and progressive groups in the state – “it’s just the way we do things in Wyoming.”
“Our 10 groups represent a little over 50,000 citizens of this state working together, all on the same page,” Floyd noted. “I think it sends a very strong message that we have vetted [these proposals] among the sportsmen and come to an agreement on it.”