Budgets and betrayals

What is it about the word “trust” the federal government does not understand?

Most recent case in point: The Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund (SFR) was set up more than 60 years ago to improve sportfishing and ensure angler access to public waters. Now we learn that the fund is in the cross hairs of the Office of Management and Budgets (OMB) as it considers mandatory, automatic, across-the-board cuts in spending.

The cuts kick in Jan. 1, unless the president and Congress come to some sort of agreement on a new budget by then. That might happen during the “lame duck” period between Nov. 5 and Dec. 31, but there are no guarantees. The process is called “sequestration,” and it will result in the withholding of $34 million intended for the states to be used to protect, restore and maintain fisheries. Including another $9 million to be withheld from boating education funds, this is a huge chunk of the more than $365 million currently allocated each year to the states under SFR. A similar program for wildlife is in danger of having $31 million set aside. 

I’m all for living within our means, both individually and as a nation. If we had been doing that the past decade or so, we wouldn’t be in this fix. But I’m just as adamant that trusts are not to be violated.

Here’s what’s different about the SFR fund: It is a user-pays/user-benefits program. Those users include every fisherman who buys fishing rods, reels, lures, trolling motors and other fishing items, as well as everyone who buys motorboat fuel. Those excise taxes are placed into a trust and then distributed to the states, which use them as matching funds with fishing license money and other revenue to pay for projects within those states.

If your state needs a new pier or boat ramp, a fourth of the cost comes from state funds, and the remainder from the SFR Fund. This isn’t taxing the middle class to benefit the rich, or even the reverse. It’s a system that has anglers investing in their own sport and in the resources on which it depends.

In previous years when sequestration was required, SFR apparently was excluded because it is a trust fund. That won’t happen this time, unless Congress acts soon. 

Interestingly, the sequestered funds won’t be used to pay down the deficit or balance the budget, at least not initially. They’ll be held back until the budget impasse is broken, whenever that might be. The problem is, if the money can’t be spent within the next two years, it cannot be allocated and will be lost to sportsmen forever.

Jeffrey Vonk, president of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, discussed that possibility in an Oct. 8 letter to his organization’s members about the ramifications of the OMB’s intentions. He expressed another concern as well: “We also need to pay attention to setting the stage for new legislation that could take the next step — i.e., sweep funds into the Treasury at some point in the future, especially if the accounts grew to a ‘noticeable balance’ because of multiple years of sequestration.”

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service went all out this year to celebrate the 75th anniversary of wildlife and sportfish restoration, which began with excise taxes on guns and ammunition that long ago. It’s ironic that, for the first time, the financial contributions from sportsmen likely will be held back from their intended purposes.

To do that would be a betrayal of generations of anglers, hunters and boaters who have paid taxes so that our sports would be protected and enhanced. Sportsmen supported the tax plan, even knowing it would increase the cost of some tackle by as much as 10 percent, because they knew they couldn’t count on the federal government to consistently fund sportfishing and hunting programs. What we didn’t expect was that our contributions might be confiscated for other uses.

If you feel as betrayed as I do, visit www.keepamericafishing.org and find out when and how you should contact your senators and representatives.

That website, by the way, also presents a question/answer feature in which the presidential candidates express views on sportfishing and related matters — just in case you haven’t made up your mind yet.