MADISON, Wisconsin — Thirteen vacant positions dealing with fish and wildlife issues within the state Department of Natural Resources would be eliminated, but fees to hunt and fish would not go up, under a cost-saving move approved by the Legislature's budget committee Wednesday.
Democrats criticized cutting the jobs, noting that the vote came on Earth Day and on the heels of news that DNR had sent notice to 57 workers that they may be losing their jobs. Republicans defended the action, saying the DNR under Gov. Scott Walker was looking at ways to operate more efficiently and plug a shortfall in the fund that primarily comes from hunting and fishing license fees.
"We're doing what's fiscally correct," said Rep. Mary Czaja, R-Irma.
The Joint Finance Committee vote comes as the Republican-controlled panel continues to make changes to Walker's budget proposal. It plans to pass its version of the two-year spending plan in late May, sending it on to the Senate and Assembly for debate.
Lawmakers are expecting to get highly anticipated revised state tax collection numbers the week of May 4. The committee has not scheduled any more meetings before the release of those numbers, which will determine how much more money is available to spend on things like K-12 schools and the University of Wisconsin.
More money could also reduce pressure to cut jobs, like those targeted at the DNR.
Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, urged the committee to hold off on voting to cut the fish and wildlife positions until it has a better handle on what the appropriate overall level of staffing at DNR should be.
There are 434 authorized positions within the department's fish and wildlife division, which includes game wardens. There are 32 vacancies, which amounts to 7.4 percent of the workforce.
The department plans to keep vacancies at about 5.5 percent to limit salary and related costs over the next two years in order to maintain a balance in the fish and wildlife account, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said in a memo to the committee.
"These reductions have limited, and will continue to limit, the Department's activities in most aspects of fish and wildlife management programs and conservation law enforcement," the Fiscal Bureau said.
The vast majority of the fund — 88 percent — comes from fees charged for hunting, fishing and special licenses and stamps. But last fiscal year it brought in about $3.3 million less than it was authorized to spend.
None of hunting and fishing fees have gone up since 2005. Walker, a likely presidential candidate, did not propose raising them over the next two years, either.
Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor, of Madison, said rather than cutting positions the Legislature should instead raise fees a small amount. A $2 increase on the most popular hunting and fishing licenses would raise about $2 million a year.
But the committee agreed with Walker not to raise fees, and instead decided to deal with the fund imbalance by cutting the vacant jobs.
It also voted to require the DNR to meet with hunters, anglers, trappers, conservationists and others to come up with a plan to deal with the fund imbalance. Its report back to the committee is due by Jan. 1, 2017.
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