Kentucky State Budget Battle Could Affect Asian Carp Funding

A dispute between some of Kentucky’s Republican officials and the state’s newly elected Democratic governor could affect the availability of funds to fight the spread of Asian carp.

Lyon County Judge-Executive Wade White (R-Eddyville) has been one of the leading voices speaking about efforts to eradicate the invasive fish species in western Kentucky’s Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake. He sees the efforts as necessary to attempt to restore tourism, including recreational boating and fishing of native game fish. Lyon County abuts Kentucky Lake and includes much of Kentucky’s portion of Lake Barkley. In an email to supporters February 27, White said the budget proposed by new Gov. Andy Beshear swept $5.5 million per year from Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) boat registration funds that was in large part collected to fund efforts to combat carp.

Beshear’s office responded by denouncing White’s characterization of his decision to transfer boating registration fees for other uses and said the boating registration funds were never earmarked specifically for carp eradication. The governor is facing a projected budget shortfall and is directing the KDFWR funds into the general fund in his budget proposal.

White laid out what he saw as the major issues with not using the funds in carp eradication efforts.

“Here is why this is important,” his email said. “A couple of years ago, your boat registration fees went up in Kentucky. The fee increase was earmarked by the legislature for boat ramp/lake access maintenance, water enforcement and Asian carp control. And keep in mind, this $5.5 million will be swept this year and next year. That’s $11 million pulled from fighting the war on carp, water enforcement and boat ramp maintenance.”

Without the funding, White said he expected the state would be unable to maintain a subsidy for each pound of carp commercial fishermen harvest in Kentucky lakes and rivers.

“I’m not sure any commercial fishermen can continue to fish in western Kentucky to pull these carp out of our lakes without this subsidy,” he said.

White said it would also affect funding for the Kentucky Fish Center, which auctions the fish to processors and limit the availability of matching funds necessary to take advantage of federal grants.

Additionally, he said, the lack of funding would prevent the continued operation of the experimental bio-acoustic fish fence installed just downstream of Barkley Dam in the Cumberland River.

“Those crews hired to do research on whether the barrier is working and keeping it going will no longer be possible,” he said. “That barrier is designed to keep the carp out of our lakes while the subsidy keeps commercial fishermen out there pulling them from the lakes.  Folks, we can’t continue our fight if this money is swept from Fish and Wildlife.  It was collected from boaters with a purpose, and now the money is being removed for something else. That’s not right, and I need your help to fix this.”

White said he had contacted the governor’s office repeatedly since February 21 and received only a one-line email saying the office had given KDFWR nearly $3 million to combat Asian carp previously. He asked for help from legislators as well as asking the public to contact the governor and their state representatives.

Beshear’s deputy communications director, Sebastian Kitchen, responded to western Kentucky television station WPSD’s story on White’s allegations by saying White’s information was incorrect.

“The governor fully funded the Department for Fish and Wildlife in the proposed budget,” Kitchen said. “They are not taking any cut. In fact, the governor’s proposed budget provides $14 million more to the department than the current budget. The governor is committed to combating Asian carp by providing nearly $2 million to fight the invasive species, with another $4 million provided by the federal government. In addition, the department is also receiving $12.5 million from one-time federal funding sources. The department never requested boat registration funds to be used to fight Asian carp, and this is not the first time the judge-executive has spread incorrect information about the governor.”

The governor’s budget, which he proposed January 28, directs the fees collected into the state’s general fund as part of an effort to balance the state’s budget. A memo from outgoing Gov. Matt Bevin’s budget director warned in December that the state is facing an expected budget shortfall of more than $1 billion, with more money needed for pensions, Medicaid and employee health benefits. Beshear also made campaign promises to raise the state’s teacher salaries by $2,000, which the state budget office has projected to cost $97 million, including pay-related benefits.

White has said it isn’t fair to taxpayers to take the KDFWR money he said was promised for improving the state’s hunting, fishing and boating. He provided a copy of a 2017 article from the Louisville Courier-Journal in which Ron Brooks, the KDFWR aquatic nuisance species program director, is quoted as saying the agency asked for an increase to the boater registration fees because while some of the funding was needed for boat ramp repairs, other infrastructure improvements and increased safety patrols on the lakes, a sizeable chunk was being requested for controlling and managing carp, particularly on Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.

White also sent out an email with an attached YouTube video with an audio recording of a Kentucky House budget subcommittee meeting he said was provided to him by Rep. Chris Freeland (R-Benton), whose home county includes a portion of Kentucky Lake. In the meeting, newly appointed Kentucky Secretary of Tourism, Arts and Heritage Mike Berry discusses the proposal to transfer the boater registration fees after state Rep. David Hale (R-Wellington), who retired from KDFWR, expressed concern with the effect the transfer could have on the department. Berry suggested the state will recoup funding for carp eradication efforts from more than $12 million in federal government grant funding awarded years ago.

“But we don’t know when that money could arrive, if it even will arrive and when it would arrive,” White said before adding that the federal funds had been requested on top of the funding to be collected from boater registration fees because that was not expected to be anywhere enough on its own for carp eradication efforts. He added that those federal grant funds would also require a state match.

Hale also expressed his displeasure during the meeting, saying the transfer of funding could, in his view, ruin the KDFWR.

“I’ll sit here and go on record and say I’m appalled that the administration is even giving this any consideration,” Hale said.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for additional information.

The Kentucky legislature is scheduled to meet through April 15 with one of its major tasks including passing the biennial budget.

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