State Collects Stamp Fees to Boost Sportfishing, but Keeps Funds on the Hook

California has reeled in more than $2.5 million over the past year and a half from the $5 stamps anglers must buy to fish in the Delta and Sacramento Valley rivers -- a pot of money that's supposed to boost sportfishing.

California has reeled in more than $2.5 million over the past year and a half from the $5 stamps anglers must buy to fish in the Delta and Sacramento Valley rivers -- a pot of money that's supposed to boost sportfishing.

But not a penny has been spent and, at best, a fraction will be used over the next year.

"This whole thing to me is bogus," said Bob Strickland, president of United Anglers of California and a member of the citizen advisory committee that recommends projects worthy of the stamp funds. "I'm a logical thinker: When you have a fund that's dedicated and it's there, why can't we have it?"

Last year close to 65,000 of the stamps were bought in Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado and Yolo counties combined -- about 20 percent of all sold. The nearly 51,000 Bay-Delta stamps sold in Sacramento County were the most for any county in the state.

The state Department of Fish and Game promised money from the stamp, created by a 2003 law, would be spent on "long-term, sustainable sport fishing benefits." Among other things, the department cited more shoreline access and restoring fish habitat.

Last fall the state Department of Finance rejected Fish and Game's request to spend about $1.6 million in stamp funds in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Finance officials said the proposal violated a Gov. Schwarzenegger administration directive for state agencies to "refrain from bringing forward any proposals to expand government."

Fish and Game's spending plan included seven new staffers to identify, choose and carry out the sportfishing projects.

Finance did approve a separate proposal to spend $286,000 in stamp funds annually on an ongoing angler survey in the Delta and its tributaries. The program is in the governor's proposed budget.

The stamp money would enable the department to win $972,000 in matching federal funds the first year and lesser amounts in later years.

The stamp money would fund four permanent and about a dozen temporary positions to conduct the survey. The request was approved because finance officials determined the survey was not an expansion of government per se but rather a "restoration" of similar work halted by budget cuts, said Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer.

The request also was approved because of the matching federal funds, he added.

Fish and Game is drafting a new, roughly $1.6 million spending plan for stamp funds that, if approved this fall, could be spent starting next summer -- assuming it survives next year's budget process. Palmer said Finance expects to work with Fish and Game this fall on a spending plan.

Some Fish and Game officials said they understand and share anglers' frustration with how long it's taking to spend the stamp funds.

"The longer we can't spend this money the more wary the anglers are going to become, and I'd say that's not an irrational position," said Ed Pert, chief of Fish and Game's Inland Fisheries Division. "I'm concerned anglers will lose faith in what we're trying to do: spend the money wisely on sportfishing."

One advantage of the delay, he and other department officials point out, is more time to identify worthwhile projects and to find matching state and federal funds that would enable the stamp -- expected to raise $1.5 million to $2 million a year -- to do more work.

Beginning in 2004, the annual "Bay-Delta Sport Fishing Enhancement Stamp" has been required to fish in a huge area encompassing San Francisco Bay, the Delta and long stretches of the San Joaquin, Sacramento and American rivers and their tributaries up to major dams.

The stamps cost $5 from Fish and Game but many anglers buy them from stores, where they sell for $5.25 including a vendor fee. The stamp must be purchased in addition to an annual sportfishing license, which costs $31.75 from the department or $33.35 from stores.

"They better put my money to work," said angler Lo Team Saetern, 23, of South Sacramento, referring to his Bay-Delta stamp.

Saetern, who teaches math and history at Sacramento's Visual and Performing Arts Charter School, said he was never clear on what the stamp was for, exactly, but he favors using its revenue to buy more angler access.

As he and several friends shopped at Freeport Bait & Tackle early one recent evening, Saetern said he misses fishing on the west side of the Sacramento River below the Freeport Bridge. That area is one of many along the river and in the Delta posted with "No Trespassing" signs in the past 18 months.

State officials insist the Bay-Delta funds are safe and sound in a dedicated account within its massive Preservation Fund and will be ready to spend when authority is granted. The Bay-Delta stamp fund had a $2.5 million balance in April, which is in line with projections for a $3 million balance by the end of this month and $5 million by June 30, 2006.

However, a Legislative Analyst's Office report of April 11 found Fish and Game "has been overspending certain accounts" within its Preservation Fund.

"We estimate that (Fish and Game) has in effect 'borrowed' about $11 million from dedicated accounts," the LAO wrote. "Absent corrective action, we project that the (Preservation Fund) will be out of balance beginning in 2006-07 as expenditures in the fund as a whole would exceed available resources."

Sonke Mastrup, deputy director of the wildlife and inland fisheries division, said the Bay-Delta stamp money "is in the bank."

"However, for us to really be able to use it to deliver the full program, we need to resolve some internal fiscal problems we have," he said.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News