By Etta Pettijohn
State legislators have attempted for the past five years to raid a fund meant to provide habitat and protections for wildlife – including endangered and threatened species – to fund other agency operations, and risk losing about $14 million in federal funding if they succeed.
Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham’s proposed budget seeks to transfer $500,000 from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish’s Game Protection Fund to the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, which oversees state parks. The proposal would also transfer more than $100,000 from that fund to the Office of the State Engineer to help cover the cost of dam operations.
Last month a subcommittee of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee advanced portions of the governor’s budget proposal to the full committee for consideration, which includes the two proposed transfers.
State game protection funds are matched with Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act funds, also known as the Pittman–Robertson Act to provide habitat, and species restoration and management activities. Federal law requires these monies be spent on the above-mentioned purposes only.
In 1970, the Act was amended to include funding for hunter education programs and development and operation of public target ranges. The funds come from an 11 percent federal excise tax on sporting arms, ammunition, and archery equipment, and a 10 percent tax on handguns. One-half of the excise tax on handguns and archery equipment is used for hunter education and target ranges. These funds are collected from the manufacturers and are distributed each year to the states and territorial areas by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Each state’s portion of the funds is based on the number of licensed hunters in the state. The state covers the full amount of an approved project and then applies for reimbursement through federal aid for up to 75 percent of the project’s expenses; the state is responsible for the other 25 percent of the project’s cost. The projects also benefit endangered and threatened species found on these project areas.
After hearing comments from the New Mexico Wildlife Federation (NMWF) and other conservation groups the subcommittee directed legislative and executive budget analysts to meet with representatives of Game and Fish and other agencies to consider possible alternatives to the transfers before the measure gets to the full committee in coming weeks.
The state wildlife management agency receives no state general funds, and the bulk of its revenues come from license sales and federal funds.
According to the NMWF, efforts in past legislative sessions to transfer these funds to state parks have been defeated after legislators were made aware that such transfers would violate federal law and subject the game department to stiff penalties.
NMWF Executive Director Jesse Deubel testified before the subcommittee against the transfers and said such transfers would essentially make any hunter or angler who visits state parks pay twice.
John Crenshaw, president of the NMWF board of directors testified that all 34 state parks are closed to trapping, 24 are closed to hunting and only 14 allow fishing. He said the collective contribution of state parks to hunting, fishing and trapping in the state is nominal.
“The thought of losing that federal aid money, which is about a third of their budget’ just gives me a cold sweat,” Crenshaw said.
The subcommittee still recommended a move by Rep. Randal S. Crowder, R-Clovis, to advance the transfer to the full committee.