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Lawmakers vote to return excise tax funds to


October 24, 2003

Lawmakers, Romney in sync on wildlife protection fund

By Julie Mehegan, Eagle Statehouse Bureau


BOSTON -- The House and Senate yesterday gave final approval to a bill that restores a special environmental trust fund to the state budget to ensure that Massachusetts will collect $4.7 million in federal aid for wildlife protection.
Both branches voted unanimously to support the restoration of the Inland Fisheries and Game Fund, which had been eliminated in the fiscal 2004 budget.

The bill is now on Gov. Mitt Romney's desk. An administration spokesman said the governor must review the final language before deciding whether to sign it, but he supports restoring the fund. Earlier this month Romney filed his own bill, which mirrored the legislation approved yesterday.

Checking the language

"While we haven't yet seen the final language in the bill, the administration has made clear on a number of occasions that it would like to see all such fish and game money restored," said spokesman Felix Brown.

When they approved the fiscal 2004 budget, the House and Senate went along with Romney's proposal to eliminate all so-called "minor" funds -- including the fish and game fund -- and to roll them into the state's general fund. Officials said the move was designed to simplify accounting.

But environmentalists and sportsmen's groups worried that eliminating the fish and game fund would place the federal dollars at risk. They were also concerned that the money already in the fund -- which comes from hunting and fishing licenses and a special wildlife acquisition fee -- could be diverted to other programs.

Federal objections

Romney and leaders of the House and Senate insisted they never intended to spend the funds on any other program, and the final budget contained language designed to ensure they weren't.

But it apparently wasn't enough for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency threatened to end the state's participation in the federal program that provides funds for wildlife protection and fish restoration unless it has a dedicated fund in which to deposit the federal dollars, and statutory language to ensure it was spent on designated programs.

Officials notified the state on Sept. 26 that corrective action must be taken within 30 days to prevent the loss of the money.

"If we're going to lose federal funding, it didn't make sense not to do it," said Rep. William Greene, a Billerica Democrat and co-chairman of the Legislature's Committee on Natural Resources. Greene filed a bill last month to restore the fund, the version approved yesterday. "It makes sense to continue this fund. It's a good one."

Sen. Pamela Resor, co-chairwoman of the Natural Resources Committee, said action was needed in the Legislature to correct a mistake.

"While the current administration talks continually about 'fix it first,' we also want to remember that a corollary is 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'" said Resor, referring to the administration's policy on road repairs. "I'm happy that we're fixing this one today."

Environmentalists applaud

Environmentalists and sportsmen's groups have been lobbying for passage of the bill. The fees deposited in the Inland Fisheries and Game Fund are used to finance the operations of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and include such programs as endangered species protection and the operation of fish hatcheries.

"It's great to see the governor, the House and the Senate work together cooperatively to address the need for a quick solution, to fix a mistake, and make sure that Massachusetts remains eligible for wildlife aid," said Chris Hardy, legislative director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

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