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Federal dollars belonging to sportsmen eyed for budget

| Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 8:00 p.m.

You've heard of the fiscal cliff by now, and of the attempts to balance the federal budget.

But did you know it might get done on the back of sportsmen?

Congress at the 11th hour agreed to raise taxes and cut spending to avert a crisis, but only for the short term. Unless it acts to make things otherwise within two months or so, the government will “sequester” money paid into a variety of programs, including the so-called Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration programs. Those are tax dollars paid by sportsmen on hunting, shooting, and fishing-related equipment.

Sportsmen long ago lobbied for those taxes to be created, with the caveat that the money cannot be spent on anything but programs benefitting hunting and fishing. The pot adds up to about $31 million annually for hunting and $34 million annually for fishing.

Sequestering those dollars means the government would put them aside so that, on paper, it seemed as if it had money to cover its debts. It couldn't spend the money on anything but fish and wildlife, says the law.

But some worry that could change. Bill Horn, of the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance — one of many national groups calling for sportsmen to contact their Congressmen — wrote in a blog that the government could keep setting aside the money for years on end. The “great worry,” he said, is that when the unspent amounts total $100 million or more, the federal budget office will try to take it to prop up other federal programs.

“If they try, they will meet us in federal court arguing that redirecting our tax dollars violates the law,” he wrote.

That's down the road a bit, though. The immediate impact of sequestration would be that state fish and wildlife agencies would lose money they count on, and programs and services sportsmen expect would go by the wayside, said John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

“It could have a large fiscal impact, especially with the other fiscal challenges we're facing right now,” he said. “We would have to adjust for that by either coming up with money from elsewhere or cutting programs.”

“The losers will be the hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation oriented public and the fish and wildlife. The federal budget deficit will not be reduced but our enhancement, protection and enjoyment of our natural resources will be,” said Len Lichvar, a Fish and Boat commissioner from Somerset, in an op-ed piece he wrote.

Arway said he hopes the funds will be released on time and as usual. If not, trouble looms.

“Right now, we don't know how we would accommodate that kind of withholding,” he said.

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