Indiana DNR issues warning about raid on license

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VICKI URBANIK, Chesterton Tribune

3/12/02

DNR and state auditor in dispute over raiding dedicated funds

Hoosiers who buy environmental license plates do so because they want to help pay for land preservation. Hoosiers who contribute part of their income tax return to the non-game wildlife fund do so with the intention of protecting endangered species.

But the Indiana Department of Natural Resources has put out a warning that a proposal made in the final days of this legislative session could erode its dedicated funds and the programs they support -- using the money that people paid for such things as hunting licenses and wildlife protection to shore up the state’s troubled general fund.

The DNR’s warning stems from a press conference called last week by State Auditor Connie Nass, who was accompanied by Senator Robert Meeks, R-LaGrange, and Rep. Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, in outlining how the state could potentially use $278 million in dedicated funds as an alternative to raising taxes or slashing education.

Since then, DNR Director John Goss issued a “budget survival news” bulletin for employees saying that state parks and forests could close and conservation officers laid off if the state raids the DNR’s dedicated funds. The DNR listed 17 trust funds that could be potentially threatened, ranging from the Heritage Trust Fund, which acquires ecologically significant land, to a fish and wildlife fund that pays for the turn-in-a-poacher program.

To Nass, the DNR’s warning is political hogwash. Nass told the Chesterton Tribune Monday that she proposed dipping into only one DNR fund, the Lifetime Hunting and Fishing License Trust Fund, which now totals about $20 million.

“This seems to be a tactic to alarm citizens,” Nass said. “This is just another scare tactic.”

DNR spokesperson Stephen Sellers said the DNR didn’t know what funds, or the amounts, were in Nass’ proposal. “It certainly wasn’t clear by their proposal because there wasn’t much specificity,” he said.

But even tapping into the single hunting trust fund is concerning for the DNR, Sellars said, since drawing down the fund by $8 million as Nass has suggested could result in a loss of about $11 million annually in federal fish and wildlife dollars. He said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prohibits the trust fund monies from being used for any purpose other than fish and wildlife programs.

Regardless of how the dispute ends up, the potential use of the DNR’s dedicated funds is being closely watched by environmentalists, including the local Save the Dunes Council.

Council Assistant Director Charlotte Read said it’s clear that the state agencies involved are playing politics with their charges and countercharges.

“It is definitely politics, but what’s new?” Read said.

Read said the Save the Dunes Council firmly believes that the DNR’s dedicated funds ought to be used for the purposes for which they were intended and is concerned about the precedent that would be set if any dedicated fund is tapped for other uses. The funds have allowed the DNR to take on projects that it would not have been able to do if it just depended on the state’s general fund, she said.

“It gets back to the fact these were things passed by the Legislature to do special things,” she said.

Read called on state officials to propose ways to solve the state’s budget crisis “without destroying” valuable programs at the DNR.

Nass said she felt it was important to look at a variety of the state’s dedicated funds to see if savings could be realized without having to raise taxes or cut education, as proposed. She emphasized that she was only offering lawmakers suggestions on what dedicated funds they could tap, noting that because they are dedicated funds, the only ones who have the authority to change how the money is used are the lawmakers.

Nass has since responded to the DNR by emphasizing that she never suggested tapping into the Heritage Trust Fund or any DNR fund other than the lifetime trust fund.

Sellars said the lifetime fund just about doubled in size last year, after the DNR increased its hunting license fees but offered hunters and anglers the ability to obtain lifetime licenses. The fund is an investment fund, in that the DNR can only spend the interest earned and up to 2 percent of the fund. The money can only be spent on fish and wildlife programs, he said.

Sellers said because the DNR relies so heavily on its dedicated funds -- or as he put it, is “so heavily dependent upon our customers” -- that the agency felt it was important to put out a warning of the possible impacts if the state turned to the dedicated funds to solve its budget crisis.

The DNR is primarily funded in two ways: the state’s general fund and dedicated funds, which come from park entrance fees, hunting licenses, boating licenses, and other sources like the environmental license plates.

Up until recently, the DNR got 43 percent of its total budget through the state’s general fund, another 42 percent from dedicated funds, another 11 percent from federal funds, and 4 percent through miscellaneous sources.

Those figures are changing, though, since the DNR this year is seeing its general fund allocation of $54 million cut by $8.2 million.

The DNR has taken the position that it should rely on more on its customer base, and less on the state’s general fund. Sellers said that in recent years, when the economy was good and the state was flush with cash, the DNR became more reliant on the general fund and didn’t impose fee increase. But last year, the DNR began increasing its fees.

Sellers said while it’s important to maintain general fund support, it’s a question of fairness and good business practice that those who use the DNR programs should be the ones supporting them.
 

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