EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

New Hampshire

January 13, 2008

Report could determine future of Fish and Game Department; Audit of state agency set to be released Tuesday

An audit set to be released this week could help determine the future of the cash-strapped Fish and Game Department.

More than a year ago, the state agency, which is largely self-funded, mounted a public campaign, seeking $3.2 million in additional state funding over two years to keep it afloat. Otherwise, Fish and Game officials said dramatic cuts would have to be made to its programs, services and staffing levels due to declining revenues from hunting and fishing licenses.

Gov. John Lynch rejected the request last February. Instead, he presented a biennial budget that kept Fish and Game in the black without layoffs by not filling vacant jobs and reducing department expenses. But that didn't solve the agency's long-term financial problems.

Since then, there has been no word of the agency's budget woes. But that is expected to change Tuesday morning, when a performance audit of the department that has been in the works since last spring is released. It will be unveiled at a meeting of the House Fiscal Committee at the Legislative Office Building in Concord.

The agency was tight-lipped last week about the audit's contents.

Jane Vachon, a spokeswoman for Fish and Game, said the department will not comment on the matter until the report is released.

Rep. Bob L'Heureux, R-Merrimack, an 18-year veteran of the House Fish and Game Committee, said he believes the audit will be important to the future of the Fish and Game Department.

"It is an important audit coming at a crucial time," he said. "No matter what, it is going to decide the future of the Fish and Game Department, including which direction it will go in. It will help the governor's office and Legislature by showing where the shortcomings are with the funding system and how they could be addressed."

It could, for example, recommend a different way of funding retirement benefits for Fish and Game employees to help address the agency's budget shortfalls, L'Heureux said. Currently, the agency pays employee retirement benefits itself even, although the state covers benefits for retired employees of every other state department and agency.

L'Heureux said keeping the agency financially solvent is important to New Hampshire's economy and its quality of life. Millions of dollars in tax revenue for the state are generated annually, when wildlife watchers, hunters and fishermen spend money in New Hampshire's restaurants and hotels, he said.

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