Don't sequester Pa.'s fish & wildlife funds
By Rocco Ali
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 9:00 p.m.
Many Pennsylvanians do not realize that their purchase of fishing and boating equipment and motorboat fuel directly supports aquatic resources in the commonwealth. They also do not realize that this long-standing and highly successful user pays/public benefits model is in jeopardy unless Congress acts before the year ends.
As a member of the Board of Commissioners of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) and a lifelong sportsman in Western Pennsylvania, I respectfully call on Pennsylvania's legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to exempt the Sport Fish Restoration Program and the Boating Safety Trust Fund from the impending Budget Sequestration Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-155).
Without congressional action, nearly a million dollars of contributions made by Pennsylvania's anglers and boaters specifically to conserve aquatic resources, offer public access to waterways and promote boating safety will be withheld from our agency by the federal government in 2013. Here is what is happening.
The trust funds would suffer a 7.6 percent cut, equating to a loss of approximately $43 million, to all state fish and wildlife agencies in 2013. However, unlike other programs at risk of sequestration, the trust funds are not taxpayer dollars derived through federal income taxes.
The trust funds are raised through excise taxes levied on fishing tackle and equipment and motorboat fuel that industry pays quarterly to the federal government. Sportsmen and women buy the excise-taxable items, and those revenues, combined with their purchases of fishing licenses and boat registrations, largely determine how much funding is allocated annually to state agencies like the PFBC.
The projected financial impact of losing 7.6 percent of Pennsylvania's portion of the trust funds in 2013 — $859,000 — means that we will have to reduce services to anglers and boaters. However, I believe the greater violation is the breach of trust between the anglers, boaters and businesses that pay the tax and the federal government that plans to withhold the funds from the states.
The trust funds are the lifeblood of the PFBC's day-to-day efforts to restore and manage fisheries and their habitats, open and maintain recreational access for all, and keep the public safe by providing boating safety education. In Southwestern Pennsylvania, we rely on trust fund dollars to help support our work to manage the Three Rivers fisheries, maintain public access to the region's waterways, restore fisheries at lakes like North Park, Brady's Run and the soon-to-be-refilled Dutch Fork Lake, stock dozens of creeks with trout each spring and promote safe boating.
Sequestering the trust funds will not reduce the federal deficit and, in fact, could hurt the country's finances by curbing the $145 billion economic driver that is wildlife-related recreation.
In 1985, Congress passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, which provided that the excise tax revenues going into the trust funds were exempt from budget sequestrations; however, it did not specify that the money distributed from the trust funds account to state fish and wildlife agencies was exempt from sequestration withholding.
Congressmen Jason Altmire, Mark Critz, Mike Doyle, Mike Kelly and Tim Murphy, Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, and their colleagues in Congress can close this gap by amending the “exemption” provision found in the 1985 act to include appropriations from such trust funds. This proactive step would be the most long-lasting solution.
Rocco Ali, the Southwestern Pennsylvania representative on the Fish and Boat Commission, lives in North Apollo.
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