The two state commissions responsible for regulating and maintaining sportsmen’s activities, state game lands and waterways in Pennsylvania – the Game Commission and the Fish & Boat Commission – are currently waiting for the General Assembly to take the final steps toward allowing them to control their respective fiscal destinies by passing legislation allowing them to set their own licensing fees.
The two commissions, which do not rely on General Fund revenues, are funded almost exclusively by licensing fees and fines.
Currently, only the General Assembly has the authority to increase licensing fees for the two commissions – a hot-button issue that can only be accomplished by an Act of the General Assembly.
According to the two commissions, the politics of fee increases has caused undue delays in keeping them afloat in the face of inflation, rising employee costs and the price of doing business.
The last time the Fish and Boat Commission saw a licensing fee increase was in 2005; for the Game Commission, it was 19 years ago.
Both commissions agreed the lack of fee increases has made it increasingly difficult to fulfill their respective mandates.
“It has been about 19 years since the last hunting license fee increase was approved, and there hasn’t been one adjustment for inflation during that time, so times here have been tough,” said Game Commission spokesperson Travis Lau. “We’ve implemented across-the-board budget cuts, eliminated positions, held off recruiting a new class of wildlife conservation officers, stopped replacing vehicles – you name it. All such cuts impact our effectiveness in carrying out our mission and, ultimately, impact wildlife, hunters, trappers and non-hunting Pennsylvanians.”
Fish and Boat Commission executive director John Arway noted similar turmoil has been visited upon his commission.
He said that there is a roughly $21 gap between what the license fee is actually worth in terms of real dollars when inflation is taken into account and what the license fee should be if there was an adjustment for inflation.
“That’s been the problem with this boom-and-bust cycle of setting licenses,” he said. “We set them – and then we wait 10 or 15 years before we adjust that price. No business can operate that way.”
Acknowledging the severity of the problem, the Legislature earlier this session rebooted legislation that would allow the two commissions to set their own licensing fees and operate like the government businesses that they are.
Under the two proposals – Senate Bill 30 applies to the Fish and Boat Commission and Senate Bill 192 to the Game Commission – the commissions would be able to set their own licensing fees after public hearings and a vote by the commissioners; the General Assembly would still retain the ability to override a fee increase if they found it inappropriate.
Additionally, the ability of the commissions to set their own licensing fees would sunset in 2020 under the two bills.
Both bills made their way through the Senate with an overwhelming majority vote earlier this year and have languished in the House Game and Fisheries Committee since March, with the added procedural difficulty of the Game Commission-specific bill being tabled at an April committee meeting.
The two commissions said this week that they are eager to see action from the House on the issue, noting the positive effects of having the ability to set their own licensing fees.
“If the Game Commission is granted the authority to set its own license fees, such dire times can be avoided in the future through a timely incremental increase that adjusts fees for inflation,” Lau said.
Arway has noted that, should the Fish and Boat Commission be granted the ability to set their own licensing fees, upon the needed increase, they will immediately petition the governor for a new class of enforcement officer cadets where there are 15 current vacancies, and cancel plans to potentially cut the amount of stocked trout in lakes and streams by almost 40 percent.
“We can’t continue to not do anything. Either we’re going to have to increase revenues or we’re going to have to decrease services – one or the other – we’ve reached that point,” he said. “We’ve been asking for this for at least as long as I’ve been director. Knowing that this day was eventually was going to come – and the day has come – we are to the point where we are going to have to take some action one way or another.”
Currently, the climate within the House Game & Fisheries Committee seems mixed on support for the two bills.
Rep. Dave Maloney (R-Berks), the leader behind the effort to table Senate Bill 192 earlier this year until an audit can be performed on the two commissions by the Auditor General to help bring some transparency to how money is being spent, said he still has the same concerns from earlier this year.
In particular, he criticized the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which he said has been less than transparent with their current use of fee money and, in his belief, does not act in the best interests of sportsmen.
“I think bureaucrats really lose track sometimes of who is supposed to be being served,” he said. “If there is anything I’d like to see, it would be for us to get back on mission.”
He also took issue with the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s contention that it has not had a fee increase, noting the commission has started implementing new special permits to garner additional fee money.
“How do you look someone in the face and say we haven’t had a fee increase, but all along that timeframe we’ve increased all these different fees – or we’ve created them?” he asked.
Not all members of the committee have such a negative view of the issue.
Freshman Rep. Tom Mehaffie (R-Dauphin) noted he’s been impressed with how the two commissions have been able to manage their funds under trying times while also managing the dual role of wildlife management and conservation.
However, he added, something needs to be done to create a better way to manage the fee structure that funds the two commissions so they remain solvent and able to carry out their missions for future generations of sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts.
“What I care about is making sure that these two commissions continue and thrive and make good for the hunter and fisherman alike,” he said. “These sportsmen want to see the right thing going on. We cannot discontinue the hatcheries, we cannot discontinue the pheasant farms. Whatever that takes, I think it is very, very important to do so.”
In particular, Mehaffie noted important ongoing work inside the Pennsylvania Game Commission to shore up the population of the ruffed grouse, Pennsylvania’s official state bird, which is more susceptible to West Nile Virus than any other bird and has seen a population decline in recent years.
“Let’s make sure (the commissions’ resources) are being managed efficiently, let’s give them the resources to do this,” he said. “Anyone who is an avid fisher and avid hunter would agree we need to make sure these commissions are stable and they are able to facilitate the expectations of the hunter and fisherman.”
House Game and Fisheries Committee Majority Chairman Keith Gillespie (R-York) added in a brief interview that he hopes to work with members of the committee in the near future to arrange to bring Senate Bill 192 back up for consideration, remove the legislation from the table, and then advance it to the House floor along with Senate Bill 30.
“They both have to run together,” he said of the bills.
In the short term, he added, the chamber’s main focus is on resolving state budget funding issues, so a date for when that move might occur is not yet certain.
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg Bureau Chief of The PLS Reporter, a news website dedicated to covering Pennsylvania’s government.