Game commission at odds over fees with legislature
By ALISON HAWKES
Bucks County Courier Times
HARRISBURG - With $6 million in cuts to hunting programs on the horizon, the Pennsylvania Game Commission said Tuesday it's in a budget crisis that's best solved by increasing hunting license fees for the first time in six years.
Game officials addressed a joint meeting between the House and Senate Game and Fisheries committees. They said they had halved the number of pheasants released on state game lands, were slower to pick up deer killed on highways because of a drop in allotted overtime hours and have implemented a hiring freeze that's closed 63 staff positions, among other cuts. Game officials said the main reason is that the $19 general adult hunting license, last implemented in 1999, has fallen far short of inflation.
Hunting licenses supply half the commission's $67 million budget, with lesser revenue streams coming from timber harvests, fines and oil and gas royalty fees. The commission is entirely self-supporting.
"This means that unless we have a license fee increase soon ... the long-term effect will be a leaner 2006-2007 and an even leaner 2007-2008, which will require additional spending cuts that will further impact our ability to deliver services and programs to the public," said Vern Ross, executive director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
A coalition of sportsmen groups is proposing a $10 fee increase to cover the commission's shortfalls, bringing the total basic hunting license to $29.
But lawmakers, sensing that a fee hike might be a hard sell in their districts, chastised the commission for suddenly dropping the budget crisis and spending cuts in their laps. Some vowed no increase in license fees until the end of the Legislative session in December 2006.
"You can't continue to blindside us and expect to get a license increase," said Rep. Bruce Smith, R-92 (York). "You have to alert us and the sportsmen about what cuts are coming before you cut programs, or you're not going to get a license increase because everyone's going to be mad at you, including us."
Lawmakers were especially irked by the commission's decision this year to require hunters to submit Social Security numbers when applying for a license, noting that doing so could impact revenues.
"Folks are complaining about it, they're worked up and it could have an impact on license sales," said Rep. Gordon Denlinger, R-99 (Lancaster).
And others questioned why the commission reduced the number of antlerless deer licenses by 160,000 in the coming year when that could have brought in nearly $1 million. Conservationists, who wanted to see a greater culling of the state's estimated 1 million deer herd to better habitats, heavily criticized the decision this spring.
Ross defended both decisions, saying the drop in antlerless licenses was a decision made by biologists, and the requirement for gathering Social Security numbers is federal law (even though neighboring states and Pennsylvania's Fish and Boat Commission are ignoring the federal law).
Lawmakers also objected to the kinds of cuts the Game Commission chose, including the elimination of a toll-free hot line for citizens to report injured animals, road kill and other problems and the cancellation of Pennsylvania Game News, a $12 per year monthly magazine handed out free to schools, lawmakers and farmers who participate in a state program to allow hunting on their properties.
Rep. Sheila Miller, R-129 (Berks), said the commission was making a public relations mistake.
"Public relations is a key area in getting higher license sales," she said. "It's a very shortsighted decision on your part."
With nearly $3 million in program cuts instituted in February and a promise of $6 million more to come, lawmakers readily admitted that the commission is in trouble. But lawmakers also said they would take time to study the problem.
"We want to work with sportsmen organizations. There's going to have to be more hearings," said Rep. Christopher Sainato, D-9 (Beaver). "I think [a fee increase] would be a last resort. All other avenues have to be explored."
The Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs is behind the idea of a hike in hunting license fees. The group, in working with a coalition of other hunter groups, has come with a proposal to hike licenses by $10 to generate an extra $15 million for the commission. That's because many hunters fear that if state money starts funding the commission, it could lose independence, said Melody Zullinger, executive director of the federation.
"Nobody wants to pay more for anything but it's a fact of life," she said. "We, as hunters and sportsmen, want to continue to fund our own way. We want to continue to be self-supporting."
Alison Hawkes can be reached at 717-705-6330 or firstname.lastname@example.org
August 10, 2005 4:45 AM
I think it is a joke. When is enough, enough? We have our representatives voting a pay increase for themselves, gas prices through the roof and Rendell does not have a problem with mad spending.
If this increase goes through I will guarantee you the PGC will be there crying about the lack of youth hunters and general licence numbers being down...and then ask for even more money. I would like to see a decrease
in fees in state and out of state. My thinking is just like tax cuts, the more you have the more you spend. Maybe I am way off base, but it seems to me that you would attract more out of state hunters and it would not cost you an arm and a leg to take some kids hunting.
Whadda you think?