Fish, boat license fees promise made — will it be kept?

July 29, 2018
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It’s been said that silence can be deafening. Time will tell if this is one of those situations.

In the meantime, Pennsylvania anglers and boaters are hanging in the balance.

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commissioners last fall voted to close several hatcheries – meaning 240,000 fewer adult trout, no shad and few if any tiger muskies, among other things – and gut their cooperative nursery program. That was to trim $2 million from their budget.

Shrinking revenues were to blame, they said then.

State lawmakers haven’t increased fishing license fees since 2004. That, coupled with a decline in anglers, left them no choice, commissioners said.

They’ve since switched course.

Earlier this month, the board agreed to keep all of their facilities open. It will pull $800,000 from its reserve account to keep the Oswayo trout hatchery open. At the same time, it’s counting on proceeds some other “revenue enhancements” to raise $1.2 million in new money.

Mostly, though, the decision is based on the promise that lawmakers will hike license fees, and sooner rather than later.

Of course, they made that same promise five years ago, the last time the commission proposed closing hatcheries. And they failed to come through.

So what’s different this time around?

“They put it in writing. That’s the only thing that’s changed,” said John Arway, executive director of the commission.

He refers to a press release put out by the commission immediately after making its meeting.

In it, four lawmakers — Republicans Pat Stefano of Somerset County and Keith Gillespie of York County, the majority chairmen of the Senate and House game and fisheries committees respectively; and Democrats James Brewster of Allegheny County and Bryan Barbin of Somerset, minority chairmen – expressed support for addressing the commission’s “financial future.”

A quote attributed to Gillespie and Barbin, for example, said they “understand the fiscal challenges the Fish and Boat Commission faces, both at present and moving into the future.”

But there are a couple of specifics worth noting about those quotes and the lawmakers who made them.

For starters, all four lawmakers spoke of addressing license fees “next session.”

That would be not only after the fall elections – lawmakers are traditionally loathe to increase fees or taxes before voters decide their future – but after Jan. 1.

The commission is still hoping for quicker action, Arway said.

“We’re going to keep pushing to see if we can get something done this fall,” he said.

But that appears unlikely.

It’s worth noting, too, that the four lawmakers quoted in the press release all supported increasing fees – or at the least were willing to talk about the idea – before the proposed hatchery cuts ever became an issue.

Other lawmakers were dead set against hiking prices. And they’ve not said whether that’s changed.

Rep. Martin Causer is a Potter County Republican who – in the words of Fish and Boat Commissioner Bill Brock of Elk County – promised “war” and “Armageddon” if the Oswayo hatchery closed. It’s located in his district.

He didn’t return either of two phone calls seeking comment on whether the decision to keep Oswayo open is enough to support a license fee increase.

Neither did Rep. Joe Emrick, a Northampton County Republican. He told Arway in a public hearing earlier this year he couldn’t support raising prices so long as the commission had more than 25 percent of its yearly budget held in reserve.

By law, that’s the most municipalities can have before raising taxes, he said then.

Even with the commission board’s latest action, it’s got upwards of 80 percent of a year’s funding in reserve.

There’s another issue, too.

The press release quoting lawmakers says that Stefano and Brewster still support Senate Bill 30. It would allow the commission to set its own license fees.

Right now, only state lawmakers have that authority.

Senators passed Senate Bill 30 last year. Representatives didn’t even get it out of committee, though.

And there’s some indication that battle is over.

“The most likely scenario is the legislature is going to set the increase,” said Tim Joyce, chief of staff for Brewster.

So, the game continues.

Commission president Eric Hussar of Union County said hatchery closings aren’t off the table completely so much as they’ve been delayed. The commission will revisit those closures in April, after seeing what lawmakers do – or don’t.

“We just can’t keep waiting for them to do something without making some cuts,” Arway added.

Barbin said he’s hopeful things will happen after the first of the year. Better communication between the commission and lawmakers offers that chance, he said.

“I’m looking forward to helping boaters and anglers get additional funding for additional services going forward,” he said.

Joyce, too, said the next legislative session might bring some resolution, despite lingering questions – if not outright opposition — by some.

“Hope spring eternal,” he said. “Our goal is to be able to finally agree on a plan and move forward.”

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-216-0193 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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