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Lawmakers look to fee hikes to ease cash crisis; livestock chief challenged

Jan 12, 2018 By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Legislators on the Wyoming Joint Appropriations Committee continued pushing for fee increases to offset funding cuts during hearings with state agency leaders this week.

For Wyoming Livestock Board director Steve True, the question had to do with raising fees even more than he already has.

Fee frustration

The Livestock Board raised fees for brand inspections by 10 percent on a temporary basis last year in order to offset a portion of budget cuts, True said. But after True outlined his exception request for funding in that unit, Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, asked why the maximum 25 percent fee increase hadn't been initiated instead.

"I'm a little frustrated when I (see) that you had the ability to raise some revenue but elected to only exercise about 10 percent of that," Larsen said. "If you raise that (fee), perhaps we wouldn't have to be looking at quite as much of a general fund appropriation."

The brand inspecting unit determines livestock ownership in the state, True said earlier, but inspectors also end up taking on other duties, like removing cattle from highways, aiding in animal welfare cases and watching out for livestock health issues.

Because of the benefit producers receive from the brand inspecting unit, Larsen said it makes sense that they should pay higher fees to offset the state's expenses.

"When you reference livestock on the highway, those livestock belong to somebody, (and) there should be some responsibility associated with the fact they're out on the highway," he said. "The industry (needs) to play a little bigger part in covering those costs."

True said the Livestock Board discussed a 25 percent fee increase last year, but industry representatives didn't think that move would be "the best answer" to the funding problem. If the standard budget stays the same, though, he said the board will likely have to pass a 25 percent increase.

"It's helpful for me to know what your plan is," Larsen responded. "If your plan is to do nothing, I get a little anxious, you might say. But if your plan is to cover as much of that as we might can in the industry, I'm a little more amenable."

Back to normal

Larsen again criticized True when legislators realized the director included funding totals set several years ago as part of his budget discussion.

True had said a 40-50 percent fee increase would be required to offset the more than $2 million in federal and state budget reductions his agency has realized since even before Gov. Matt Mead instituted an 8 percent statewide cut in 2016. But Larsen didn't think that calculation was appropriate.

"With the 8 percent cut, I think the intent of that was that the agencies who implemented those cuts would move forward without getting that back," Larsen said. "But what I hear you saying is, 'We're going to try to come back to where we were before we made all those cuts.' I'm trying to get the justification for that. ...

"We all had to take cuts. We're all having to live with less than what we had before. But I'm sensing an effort to try and not do that."

True said he didn't want to leave Larsen with that impression, but he also said that "at some point we've got to get pretty close" to the Livestock Board's previous budget amounts.

He explained that any revenue that comes in from fees won't be able to offset cuts in the long term, largely because brands only have to be renewed every 10 years, and there was a "renewal surge" in 2017.

"That (revenue) account right now looks pretty flush because it's holding the largest renewal stagger," he said. "(But) the burn rate of that fund accelerates extensively."

Based on current numbers, he said by the end of the next biennium the Livestock Board's special revenue fund would only hold $4.5 million - roughly the amount needed to operate the brand inspection program for a year. "If we get below that a weather hiccup or a (disease) outbreak ... that could run us in the red within a biennium and give us trouble where we're coming to you begging for help," he said.

By the end of 2021, he continued, there would only be $1.7 million left in the fund at the current rate.

Meanwhile, he said, the cost of doing brand inspections won't go down "without altering the program in such a fashion that it interrupts our producers' ability to do commerce."

True noted that branding fee increases haven't been enacted since 2008, but he also countered that, if fees increase too much, they eventually become "onerous" to producers. At that point, he said, "compliance becomes an issue," and because his board only has one law enforcement officer now due to budget cuts, his ability to enforce compliance is compromised.

The officer has been training deputies and other officials statewide to help with enforcement, True said, but cases of missing or stolen cattle were up in 2017, totaling 86 compared to an average of 55-60 in previous years.

True credited his agency's outreach to producers as one reason for the increase, but he also guessed that cattle rustlers in the state are aware that Wyoming only has one law enforcement officer now.

"He can't be everywhere at one by any means," True said. "I think there's some increase due to that."

When asked about other states' livestock operations, True said some impose a property tax assessment on livestock in order to bring in more revenue.

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