Hunters and anglers have something new to worry about in Washington, D.C.: “sequestration.” This technical term refers to looming automatic budget cuts—scheduled to go into effect in January – as a means of reducing the federal deficit. We’re facing these cuts because the Obama Administration, Senate, and House of Representatives have not been able to agree on a federal budget and pass specific bills to fund the government, while reducing the annual deficit. Without Congressional action to pass a budget and particular spending bills after the election, large automatic across the board funding cuts will be triggered in 2013.
Of particular concern to sportsmen are reductions of Pittman-Robertson (PR) and Dingell-Johnson (DJ) funds to state fish and game agencies. Sequestration of these funds, which provide for hunting and fishing programs all across the country, could be an unintended and disastrous consequence of the process.
For decades, hunters and anglers have paid special federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear with the revenues going to two special federal funds: Pittman-Robertson for hunting and Dingell-Johnson for fishing; PR and DJ for short. These taxes – about $31 million a year to PR and $34 million to DJ — go only to these two funds and the money can be spent only on programs to benefit hunting and fishing. In other words, these funds were purposefully designed to be restricted to ensure that the money was not used to pave roads, build prisons, support Social Security, the Department of Defense, or any other federal program. Furthermore, only the amount of tax revenue that actually goes into each fund can be spent – no money is ever borrowed to pay for PR or DJ projects and no other federal tax revenues support these projects. Because expenditures cannot exceed income, PR and DJ do not contribute to overall spending or contribute to the deficit.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) (part of the White House) has the sole authority to decide which federal programs are subject to sequestration. The OMB has interpreted the 2011 budget law that the PR and DJ funds are “non-exempt discretionary spending” and will be sequestered. That action, scheduled for January, will reduce the amount of PR and DJ funding available for hunting and fishing programs to the tune of $31 million and $34 million respectively. Overall $65 million of hunters and anglers dedicated taxes will be sequestered (i.e., not available for programs [see OMB Sequestration Report, Appendix A at pages 110 and 112].
The U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, state fish and game agencies and others have argued that the special nature of these dedicated funds means they should not be subject to sequestration. As these funds come from special user taxes and the monies can be used only for hunting and fishing programs – and do not contribute to the deficit – they should be exempt from the sequestration cuts.
So far the White House is not listening. Unless the White House and OMB relent, or sequestration is avoided because the Senate and House agree on a comprehensive new budget and spending bills between now and January, $65 million of PR/DJ funds will not be distributed to the state fish and game agencies hunting and fishing programs. These cuts represent 100% of annual PR/DJ funding.
For some of us, this is déjà vu all over again! In the 1980’s, Congress and the Reagan Administration agreed on a similar program of automatic budget cuts called Gramm-Rudman (after two then U.S. Senators). Like now, OMB decided that the cuts applied to PR and DJ. Our community objected. As Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks overseeing administration of the PR and DJ programs, I was right in the middle of it.
Fortunately we were able to persuade key members of Congress to join with us and we prevailed. OMB and the Reagan White House conceded and PR and DJ funded hunting and fishing programs were not cut. It appears it is time to dig out my letters and memos from 26 years ago to make the same case to the Obama Administration.
Subjecting PR and DJ to automatic budget cuts made no sense in 1986 and makes no sense today. We will be carrying this message to the White House and OMB, and the Interior Department. If the Administration won’t help, we will be on Capitol Hill asking the Senate and House to protect sportsmen’s dollars.
Our greater worry is that OMB will sequester the PR/DJ funds and let our tax revenues pile up, unspent. When the unspent amounts total $100 million or more, we suspect that OMB will try to transfer the money – our hunting and angling equipment tax dollars – to some other federal programs. If they try, they will meet us in federal court arguing that redirecting our tax dollars violates the law.
Hunters’ and anglers’ special excise taxes, and the good work these dollars support, should not be caught up in the political mess created by budget inaction and impasse in Washington, D.C.